Australian Biography: Franco Belgiorno-Nettis
Franco Belgiorno- Nettis (b.1915, Cassano delle Murge, Italy) immigrated to Australia in the 1950s and founded his own engineering company called Transfield. Starting with virtually nothing, the company was awarded a contract to build power transmission lines in Port Kembla. Transfield soon became a major industrial force and in 1991 it completed the successful construction of the Sydney Harbour Tunnel.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
Well, my family came from south Italy ... very, I would say, modest ... not necessarily poor, from my mother. She came from Cassano delle Murge, a little town with an agricultural background and my father, he said was from Gioia del Colle, not far away, and they must have married them pretty soon, at least for my standard. I was married at 35, 36. I think by 21 they were already married. And my father, then, was in the railway and I was supposed to be born in Salerno — that's somewhere near Naples — so by chance I'm not a Neapolitan ... [laughing] ... and so I was born in Cassano delle Murge in 1915. And I would say that is to be the cradle of ... my beginning because I still remember places — I went to a few years ago — where I was playing, when I was a kid; I could recognise places where I was sitting. So I have been living in that area with my cousins [and] particularly, my mother, in a very simple surrounding. People they cater to the agriculture, even if they were property ... propertari — that means they were the owner of the farms — still they were working very hard during that type of civilisation, that possibly now is disappearing, when these people get up at 4 o'clock, 3 o'clock in the morning, and over there, leave the fireplace on with some pots and come in the evening and have the legumes ready for the evening with oil, and only elementary basics available, I could say, that they in the evening will be basically, with a bit of oil, that was the basic feeding for these people.
Well the house, I would say, the type of very simple houses — I talk about on my mother's side — where the property ... the animals were on the ground floor and people were living on the second floor, very small, if I could see now the proportion of these houses, I could see they were just almost a place for dolls and above the ... under the roof, normally found all the produce; they left it there for the winter. Basically just elementary, that was on my side, on my mother's side. My father, in a way, was much more advanced than them, I mean he had the fifth elementary school — that was his own degree, let's call it, in education.
Fifth grade, fifth grade, yeah. And he seemed to be advanced, he considered himself in self-education, because he became a fuochista —that means an engine driver — because he was looking after the fire, to the fire usually. And he built himself ... an adequate, I would say, exceptional, I would imagine for his standard and even, at a later stage, when we were living, he would always tell us something that we didn't know. He had built up an education, remarkably, the character of my father, he had built his own education gradually, as part of the work he was doing at the railway, because eventually he became an engine driver, very important I mean for Italy, and for his surrounding. And so, eventually our house ... that was moved from different places, Gioia del Colle first, and eventually we went to Taranto and we went to Valletta, all still within Puglia area, where we soon became a very well-to-do family, even if my father was obsessed with saving. He didn't spend the money that he was making. He pretended many times that he was earning more than a professor at university and the fact that he was earning something like 1000 lira per month — at that time was really an exceptional salary — because he was doing overtime ... is not really for the kind of a type of, it is called, profession, but he was doing repair of hunting guns, he was an accomplished tradesman and he could make more money through that kind of thing. He was not sitting or counting it himself but he was repairing for the type of professional hunters, so he was really in a way a very wealthy man. So we didn't suffer from lack of money, eventually we suffered from the tendency of my father to save money to do something else. The kind of money eventually he lost because with war he had always counted to the type of national bond or whatever, for which the value became nothing.
That means sometimes it is wise to spend the money now.
Well, his father, my father's father, or adopted father, he was a ...
He was an adopted grandfather. He was a tradesman, he was a blacksmith, and he was a very good blacksmith, and he had been working as a kid in his little workshop. So most of my background comes from me working in the blacksmith workshop and helping first my grandfather and eventually my father, because eventually my father built his own house, so all the type of equipment, or type of tools, or type of inches or type of locks, etc, were all done by hand. My father was absolutely an accomplished tradesman. I had a great admiration for my father. If he had adequate schooling or education, I'm sure that my father could have become quite an important man in the community.
Well it might, but the concept of the railways already — what in Italy is called a safe position. Normally the public servant is considered in Italy an absolutely top position, therefore the idea of my father, could be ... could be working in the shop of my grandfather [but] was to establish himself in a sort of safe position, posto sicuro, you understand that. Therefore I can't blame him, the idea of being in the railway was already for him an important step to maintain the security for the family for himself.
Absolutely, you could see these people that were building little bit by little bit, the substance with security, and sometimes they lose track of where that security goes. Sometimes they lose track because security is just good enough but eventually you lose everything unless you look with some other different kind of security.
... [chuckles] ...
So, that was with your father ... he taught you those skills and you learnt them in your grandfather's shop, that were the basis of a long-term interest in engineering and making things. But what other values did your father impart to you.
Well, my father was a great disciplinarian. He was strict, I mean, the family where I come from, he would not allow us to do the sort of thing that we let the kids do. We were very strict with what we were supposed to do, the study or do the homework or do a type of looking after the house for many details. We basically didn't have the kind of freedom, I mean, even the idea of having a bicycle was a real luxury to us and we were to repair the bicycle ourselves. I mean, the story of looking at this kind of family for which [there is] a very close-knit relationship, where freedom really doesn't exist, but you have to concentrate and do it properly what you are doing now and dare don't you do it wrong. My father was not hesitated to beat us when necessary including my mother.
So, I would say, that the kind of affection that is natural in the family, for the family, that didn't appear at least when I was a kid, that was coming from the mother or father; we were just almost regimented. My idea that me and the children, the other two children, we had three in the family, and I was the oldest of the three, and normally I was carrying responsibility for the others too. I was the one being blamed for anything that went wrong.
Very hard, that childhood, I agree that there has been a pretty hard period for my life.
Well, I think that basically the first is that you are trying to escape from the family. And I remember that although I was 16 or 17, I was already trying to understand if I could possibly get something. In reality, when I was 18, I had already completed my Leaving Certificate in Taranto. The first thing we heard from my father [was] to get some employment, whatever employment possible, because again was the concept of a safe position and between different kind of competition that I had to do, still, and one day I was successful, was the station master. I became station master at 18, I was the youngest station master in Italy. Remarkable, so I was earning almost as my father and in a sort of instinctive revenge ... sending to him half of my salary, you know, to be sure — 'now I'm grown up, I don't need any more your protection, I don't need any more your control, I could do my own life' — by still giving half of my salary to him.
That's it, it was exactly a great ...
I tried really, but my wife has been the great compensation element.
At least I didn't feel that, probably because she was also very disciplinarian in her own way, so I didn't really feel the kind of affection that I think is natural for a mother toward her children. I mean, the mother was just as tough in a different way as my father, so the family was always a very good controlled surrounding, and this certainly has gently given some remarkable repercussion in my early childhood that possibly has had repercussion also possibly in the rest of my life.
Well, eventually you get so much practical in certain aspects that it takes a long time afterwards to realise that you, and the factors of the family relationship, that they were probably distorted by this kind of relationship at that age ... probably were quite artificial or, worse, we couldn't understand as kids of the difference between affection and protection type of love for children, and the wish to make these children to go in the right direction.
Well, my father was certainly not a religious man. My mother, probably coming from the Cassano, was more keen for church type of business, I would say, but we didn't ... we were not really in a way guided on that religious aspect even if at school. At the Italian school we had religious part of the normal curriculum but we took never for granted on that, quite frankly.
Well, certainly education, particularly from my father's point of view, was an important element. He realised that it was a great asset but he was not very keen for me or other children to go to higher education mainly because it was safer for us to get a job. The concept of getting a job was less riskier — many times earlier, even before the period when I became station master (to get other jobs of no importance whatsoever) I could have been landed in any other job whatsoever and the pressure sure ... [interruption] ... as in the case with the shipyard in Taranto. I made an application and thank God for some friends in the family — we made sure that the document disappeared out of the way —otherwise I could have been landed and become one of a kind of a labourer in the Italian shipyard in Taranto.
Yes, I had let my mother in on that one too, so my mother had the more instinct to assist us and assist me because even in that period I still remember that I'd had so much diversion in my curriculum of studies and eventually she succeeded in assisting me in studying Latin in order to get some jump to another little course. All my education had been scattered in different directions since I was 13 or 14, in a way very complementary, because some of my education became a very matter-of-fact workshop, the very essential of it ...
Most of my background is basically [as a] tradesman, I could have become a very good tradesman and I am a good tradesman. One day I'll take you and show you what is my workshop right down here.
No, no, I think that eventually I looked to the perspective ... I think that my father was very strict, but I owe nothing but a great admiration in a way.
Well, I think that he realised that he had to be tough, you know, to get some result. Probably he did it in a different way, but there was nothing but the great pressure of my father ... has made a contribution to what I am today.
During this period of your development and the early phase of your life, where you were learning a lot of skills, what do you think — out of the skills that you learnt — what came through into your later life that was of value there?
Well, I think that this period was a very formative, because I'm convinced that what you learn in that period — I'm talking from about five to 15 years of age — is very essential for the formation of character. So that was very essential for me to maintain that close-knit to the family, I am very grateful, even if critical of my family background, but that they have been extremely important.
And in the things that you learned from your father and your grandfather, with the hands-on, you said you were really made a very good tradesman. Was there an aspect of that that was very important later on in your life? What do you think you learned from that ,that came through in your later life, that was important?
Well, certainly for me, I would not have given away, I mean, what I learned I could say was very formative ... through my grandfather, through my father and even my mother. They were just very important formative element for the character. And I would say today that the education for children that they receive in the family is probably the most important, [more than] the one they get at school.
So you became the youngest station master in the whole of Italy and proudly sent home some of your wages to your father. What was the next major step in your life? What was the next big thing that happened?
Well, that was one chapter. I was then 18 years of age and I knew only then that my destiny was the railway but my brother, younger, he eventually was able to go to the military academy in Torino and that was a disappointment to my father, he only said the first, the oldest ... I think he suspected that I was more intelligent or whatever or of great character ...
The turning point that I could have landed and remained a station master or do something else. The coincidence of my brother, younger, that went to the military academy in Torino and therefore he could have more education in a way convinced my father that there could be still another chance for me. He was the one, quite frankly, that during ... he was an engine driver coming often from the station where I was in Calabria — that is between Taranto and Metaponto ... He told me there was a chance for me to make an application for this position. In a way that was attractive, was a distraction [from what] I was doing. Incidentally, the station master would become very important in a little town; I became a friend of the priest, a best friend of the Lord Mayor, I was in the high echelon of responsibility in the place, even as young as I was, and that was probably the first period of great freedom for me. I had even my love affair right in the little town of Trebisacce.
Trebisacce. And I said ‘okay, let's try' so we prepared all the documents, etc, etc, and that to create another background of examination, for it is very hard to get an examination form for the military academy of Torino, because that is mainly best in mathematics, geography and Italian, [I had] to study pretty hard to catch up and my brother was pretty tough with me, incidentally, because he knew already the difficulty of the subject. He considered me really second-rate, he just insulted practically every ... in that particular summer and I succeeded ... not only in successful there but in the fact I got also the bursary so I was able to spend two years at Torino without spending any money. It was a great satisfaction for me, you know, my father wouldn't spend anything.
Yeah, but still now I was lagging behind him. He was younger than me, I was behind him, so that was in a way some type of ...
... incentive to do better. I didn’t realise that eventually the history would change entirely, the succession value and responsibility, or whatever success. So you see that after that period there is in front of me another period that basically is four years of a very hard study at the military academy and the scuola d’ applicazione, the second two years, and eventually a further year that I spent in Rome for an electronic type of postgraduate, right in Rome — and that was another period of five years that I spent and by then I was already 25. I was basically robbed then of all my youth, because from station master when I was a free citizen, free to move and do what I want to, relatively to my commitment to the railway, I was regimented in a very solid kind of surrounding that is the military academy with discipline of the highest standard and the study that I considered, even one subject that I went to university, the study at the military academy by far was much tougher that you get at an ordinary university.
Well, that was the standard that you'd expect from a permanent officer of the Italian army in the engineering corps. As I said, my channel mentally is in engineering and that was another important segment of my education, coupled with all the type of training and study and hard practice I had since my childhood, you see — that is pretty compact preparation for what is supposed to be the second or third jump that I had to do and I didn't know subsequently what ...
Well, I, at that time, I didn't feel any restriction beside the restriction already existing in the academy. Quite frankly, I didn't even know that the politics were part of the game of everyday life. I mean, I didn't feel any kind of brainwashing or persuasion, that is obviously apparent and that was already there, because when you finish the period I was totally brainwashed, I suppose, as I can see now. Because people are prepared for a certain kind of function and, to me, military people should be trained that way just as priests are for their function in life. So I thought that it was absolutely natural that the discipline was part of the preparation for what was the function of officers.
First of all, officers were supposed to be very dedicated to their function, totally committed to the life of their country. It is a fact, it is a fact, people they take it not seriously, but I think that officers, they have been trained to do that, they should be totally convinced. I would not have tolerated that officers should be married, I mean, the question of marrying is an obstruction to an officer. They are supposed to be ready to defend or attack or whatever that may be for the development of the country or protection of the country. That was my mentality at the time.
No, in reality, the question of the girl was only during the outing during the academy at Torino [which] always is certainly wonderful, one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, and beautiful girls are all over and even my wife, who comes from Torino, is one of the typical. In reality, you were more or less imprisoned in the academy. You only had two hours per day freedom and the ... yes, after a period, you go on these military exercises. There is not much room left for it, I mean, there is no question that you can have a season love affair, but they are spasmodic and a quick result of quick contacts of no consequence whatsoever. In reality we were very close to ... I am talking about 1941 now, 1940 to 41, so you can see that already [in] 1939 there were some important developments taking place in Europe, Italy and Germany, still [a] pact between the two, you could see all this big parading in many parts of Italy particularly, as well as in Germany, you could see combustionism, therefore we were already ready for this tremendous conflagration that was happening, so therefore the question of a love affair was very, very secondary.
So you were motivated as a trainee military officer more by patriotism than by a dedication to fascism. Or were they at that time seen as one and the same thing in the academy in which you were trained?
No, I think that the military academy was basically [about] patriotism. To consider the duty for the Motherland — all the sort of tradition that you are to maintain, the flag, the feeling of honour, the question of dying for the duty — that you should enjoy when something is really hard. That's the typical ... the fascists were a different thing altogether, but still I can see now that there was permutation, type of, coming into the military academy. The fascism, as part of even some examination for which you had to respond in a certain way where for the, say, the good of the country ... you had to sacrifice a certain kind of, type of, principle. So the idea of that for the good of the total you should sacrifice a certain kind of thing, that I think could now appear quite uncivilised, but to me that was pretty obvious for me, if there was something to be done, a certain kind of sacrifice, a principle to be adopted automatically, that was fascism. So automatically fascism will come indirectly in the military academy. Unavoidable.
No, definitely not. And even earlier, I still remember that even before I went to America, I'm talking about when I was 15 or 16, my father was totally anti-fascist and where the argument is with children in the family, where we had been brainwashed by the school system automatically, I could feel the clash between my father. There was a gangster, the big bosses in Rome, and we instead from the school bring a certain kind of, different kind of, gospel, you see, already there before we were 16 or 17 ...
Life in this institution was pretty stiff, pretty rigid. I mean that every 24 hours there was very little time wasted. I mean, there was so much time for sleeping, so much time for studying, so much time for sports, so much time for recreation and everything is controlled in every detail, so you got little room to escape, and I was at the military academy, for instance, in a period when there was a special type of compulsory study ... and they are the type that you can study outside, really two or three hours a day, whenever you have a chance to do so. And I made a certain break into the chemistry department where there was a certain kind of mineral, and I wanted to get some samples of that and to do that I broke certain original pieces for which ... I needed that for examination, and I was put in confinement. So there is not only a military camp but you have a special confinement, if necessary, [if] something goes wrong. So a military academy is a very total controlled surrounding that I think is very essential to create an orderly, say, man out of a youngster, a really rigid officer that I suppose is to me ... it has not been invented, must be old, just as mankind. I mean, the soldier's education has not changed very much in the last 2000 years.
Well, definitely, there is no question of argument. In the military mentality, you are given an order and that order will take you right to the end ... if necessary, dying. I mean to me it was just normal, I don't see anything exceptional, so when I said that the people needed discipline, without going to the extent of military — it is a very essential element of education that so many people don't realise is ... that it is a pretty essential element for living an orderly life.
Well, to me, it was a question of making a distinction because I could receive orders from one source — that was the military. I didn't get much chance to listen or to obey the fascists, but in reality there was not much distinction of the two. So it was dictatorship in a way that you can see in paralleling ... many parts of the world today has got the same route.
Well, I think that that kind of contradictory element in my family, now I can see was just normal, because my father himself was a sort of total dictator in a way, but it was a different kind of dictatorship.
He was a dictator.
So in retrospect, looking back now, with the advantage of hindsight and being able to evaluate it, how do you feel about that fascist element that was there at the beginning? How do you put that into perspective from where you sit now?
Yes, I could see that if you are brought to a period, or in an atmosphere of persuasion or, if you like, brainwashing, you don't feel it, you don't feel that you are being brainwashed. You've got to go out, completely out of that process, to see the differential and to understand the value. Of course now if I could see that kind of atmosphere, I could see it as ridiculous — there are aspects of good humour — if we might say, but in reality these are the two aspects of life, the total of expression that sometime I can see around here, or in many other parts of the world, and the total negation of a personality. Now I think there must be a compromise in the two systems and I'm glad in a way that I'm in a type of surrounding where I can see the other part of the medal.
Do you see some values in that old system, in that system of authority, in a system that is really very strictly and tightly controlled such as fascism? Do you see some elements in that, that you see value in?
Oh definitely. I think that I have been lately in my trip in the Asian country, where there is really what I call a guided democracy, where there is a certain kind of freedom, I could tell, but in reality it is safe for that particular kind of people. I think it is essential to maintain some order with a certain amount of discipline. I don't believe that mankind would have survived the length if we just break down completely the relationship. I mean, there must be a certain amount of discipline, or law or order, otherwise there would be a convulsion. I think that, in a way, in proper perspective, I could see some sense in having certain order, some discipline, some law, some kind of authority to avoid the breaking down of the system.
Well, we can see many problems in Western democracy and you can see what Clinton the other day was saying, that we have unfortunately two million unemployed. I think that the same kind of catchcry we have in Australia and the same is happening in Europe. So sooner or later they might be in a bit of a wrench ... [laughs] ...
What are the activities that went on at the military academy that you enjoyed? Did you learn any new skills or anything apart from your strict studies — like horse riding or fencing or any of those things? Could you describe the lighter part of it?
Well certainly, the aspect of professional culture, that is, the study of history, the study of weaponry, the study of tactics, of strategy, that's part of military aspect that is quite interesting, so the history of war, how the people are winning or losing, the essential, the movement of troops, soldiers, when the soldier was just, almost, an element of movement in a sort of chess board, that is quite interesting, because that has not changed very much. I suppose won't change in the next many, many years to come, so that is a very important study in the military academy. And the other one was the engineering aspect, that is, the science, construction, mathematics, all aspects of chemistry, physics, mechanics, that is, the basics of engineering — well to me has been also a very essential element of my education, that eventually I completed university, so that was just the beginning of what was my completion later on at university in Torino.
Oh yes, I think these things come by instinct back again. Certainly part of the discipline, part of the theory of management that, by the way, has not been invented lately, I mean the Machiavelli was already speaking about management in the 1500s and the Vatican has been the greatest strategist of all, and this to me was very good lessons that I could draw on from many chapters of my study at the academy.
Of course, that was part of [it], horses, I've been very fond of horses, since my size, I was just a good jockey and I have been to some races in Torino, at Millefiori, so I was not only a good horse rider but also a good racing jockey.
Now after you finished military academy, war has already broken out for your country so you were able to utilise your studies in a practical way virtually immediately. Could you tell us how that happened and where you went?
Well, I felt that when the war was declared was part of my game, I mean, I had been working and studying for five years and therefore now is the time [to] do something. Altogether the idea of going to war and to be recognised and become a hero, get medals, is part of the mentality of a young officer, so I didn't see anything wrong for me to start getting active. At the time I was teaching communication and electronic at one of the military institutions in Torino and I did demand, I just demanded, to go to North Africa. As a matter of fact I could not have gone anywhere else. North Africa was the place for me and I became in charge of a company. So you see, automatically I felt that now is the time to put in operation what you learned or what was supposed to be your function.
Well North Africa ... I didn't have much time because things were getting pretty fast. I arrived in June 1941 and by November the same year there were already very [many] movements in North Africa. The Italian army had been pushed already back to Benghazi and there was another push toward Egypt and I was on the boundary between Egypt and Libya and ... I was supposed to be an expert in telecommunication, but unfortunately I finished up becoming in charge of a company that was putting tanks for personnel and for ... mines, I'm talking about, therefore there is a convulsion, you go there to do something and eventually do something different, so I had to upgrade straight away my knowledge in mines and explosive that is basic, also, subject for the officers.
Landmines — they are for personnel and for tanks, different kinds of things, so in a matter of a few weeks I became very familiar with the technology of these things and since we had already had a few accidents, and soldiers being blown by defective mines or by malpractice in the, type of, priming these kinds of devices, I give instruction that only officers, including myself, to do the priming. So fortunately we didn't have any losses any further, as part of that type of practice, so I had to prepare this kind of perimeter, of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in the period, and that was from about November 1941 when I could feel already that action was coming during the night. I could see already this type of inspecting patrols or what was the enemy coming and just tasting what were the forces, what were the protections, what were the boundary line, and the battle started in the last week or so of November and it was a succession of episode quite interesting from the military point of view.
The stronghold [was] where I was and that night I tried to close the gaps that were left open and, in the bombing of the stronghold by the Anglo-Saxon plane, all the stronghold fell and I kept left over in the minefield and behind the tanks. I finished up becoming a prisoner, having lost some of my people ... fortunately I was not injured and I became a prisoner. So I was a prisoner at the end of November 1941 and in the type of a few days — it was a very flexible kind of movement of troops and tanks and trucks and whatever — I was supposed to go to Egypt, but that night a group of English tanks, British tanks that came very close to us, and we were convinced that they were part of the Anglo forces. Eventually we discovered it was German and they started shooting and eventually I became free in the confusion but I was hit, in the shooting, and I still have one bullet in my body now, as part of that second, so I became now free again.
With all the forces inside the stronghold.
And these were gaps that we had left ourselves. It was part of the system, for which the gaps was only to allow the entry of personnel and trucks and whatever, but of course, since the danger of enemy was approaching, I had to go there and close the gaps during the night, so what I really was confronted with, was an attack on the stronghold. I was already on the periphery of the system when the tanks overrun the system. I finished to remain on the outside of the stronghold, just on the periphery of the mines.
Ah, not safer really, because the onslaught on these attacking forces were right there, so the safety was merely relative, I think, I was not killed by a miracle because there was shooting and a lot of people were lost, just on the stronghold, on the periphery of the minefield.
... that's part of war.
So I was taken prisoner and that is really flexible type of surrounding.
Chaotic because just behind the tanks’ advance, advancing tanks, there were English troops and the people like me and my associates were in the minefield, they became part of the system — the Italian and the British in the same area and we didn't know what was happening until the solution or whatever of the result was done inside the stronghold. So eventually you realised that you were now prisoner.
Taken towards Egypt as normally Egypt was part of the axis of the British forces and it was during one of these evenings that these British tanks were seen close to us and everybody was convinced that they were British, therefore even our soldiers, all the soldiers, were of the same opinion that they were looking at us as prisoners, they were happy, whereas in reality they were Germans shooting against us, so eventually in that utter confusion, I finished to become free again.
That's it, that's it.
It's still there. In reality it took me another almost one month, one month and a half, because I was taken on a German ambulance and I was with them and moving in a kind of movement. There was shooting, as normally they do, in the battlefield and I was landed in Salum base. That was a stronghold toward, further toward, the Egyptian lines, and until all the system collapsed to Salum, Bardia and Tobruk, I became again prisoner. The development of episodes in the very volatile war in North Africa ... I became twice as a kind of element of the battle.
Well that was at ...
Could be, could be, because in Tobruk, I was sick and I was in the military hospital in Tobruk, it was an Italian military hospital when the system fell again and around there were certainly Australians because I remember when I came back here in ... I came to Australia in 1951 ... I still remember an officer, an engineer of the commission [Electricity Commissioin of NSW], Mr [Graham] Ogle, he told me that he had lost one leg, right in Tobruk, in the same period. So he was just playing with the idea that probably I shot him or he shot me, whatever, we became good friends but in reality that was the war and most likely, opposite me at the time, there were Australians.
Well, the German forces were with us and in our division there were a certain kind of battery, guns, that were manned by Germans, so I made daily contact with them and that was the period when I had a chance to meet Rommel. Rommel was always a kind of general moving his rocket from [one] spot to the other. That was a very good, unforgettable, episode for me. I was in charge, as I mentioned, of a company that was anti-tank, anti-personnel mine, but I took the initiative of putting my own little stronghold inside and my own machinegun and all that kind of thing. I don't know if it was worthwhile, but I succeeded in shooting one airplane with my machine-gun, my improvised machine-guns there. That airplane, I think it was eventually found out, was a South African pilot, was captured by us, and I'm talking about much before the actual final battle. And as part of that action, and also the fact that I was able to close the gaps of the mines during the big battle, I received the silver medal.
Well, gradually I tried to find some kind of solution, of trying to even guess at some solution. I don't think that really there could be a solution that will settle mankind history in a matter of 50 years. Well I'm glad that there has been a big change in the nuclear arsenal all over Europe, but I doubt if mankind will really become wiser in the future. I've got some doubt that that kind of experience that we have so far has endowed mankind with a certain way of behaving. I have some solution in my mind that possibly with the progress, with prosperity, with a good standard of living, with communication, with transportation, there will be a much greater integration of population in the world. I think this will be an important new chapter for the history of this planet.
You were also of course as a soldier trained to have an enemy, and to fight the enemy. Do you think that that way of looking at the world also has dangers in that that kind of mentality, that sees an enemy in what is other, can in fact be a part of the cause of war?
Well, if you see the mentality of humans — [if] there are two men there will always be a chance of rivalry and I don't think that you could just cancel the concept of hostility and war and the fact that for a millennium people have been trained to make war, to wage war. It takes a long process of changing mentality to destroy that attitude. To me, I have a tremendous amount of faith in the evolution of the races when, with the development of science and technology, we got more communication and more rapid movement of people for which there will be better understanding and building bridges of friendship. This is probably one of the solutions that could change the very old way of looking to war.
Well, I really didn't know. Because when you are a prisoner, you live day to day. You don't know what the next ... you don't know what the enemy ... I mean the enemy is being painted by the other side always as a sort of devil that will probably shoot you or will not look after you or will starve you or whatever. Now I was very lucky that I finished in the hands of the British that, more or less, not withstanding with all the ethnics coming from Africa or from other parts of the world (the Gurkhas etc) they are pretty well civilised kind of characters. [laughs] So actually, the period that I spent between 1942, because eventually it was in 1942, early 1942 that Tobruk fell, and therefore that, I would say, was the third or fourth chapter of my life. There were a good, almost four years and a half that I spent between Egypt in the desert of Ismailia and eventually in India, in Dharmsala first and Yol, close to Punjab. That’s quite an interesting chapter of my existence, four year, five years spent, very usefully I would say, because I utilised every scrap ... every segment of time, I used very usefully for me.
So tell me about this four to five years in a British concentration camp, tell me about what you learned and if you could, at the same time, evaluate what it meant for you in the long term to have had that period?
Well first, for the first time I was really free. I mean, it's strange to say, being in prison you are free, because okay, you've got this surrounding barbed wire around you, but at least you are free to do what you like in this kind of space. I mean, no more somebody telling you to get up, do that, do that; you could even stay asleep if you like. As a matter of fact, we were blaming the Neapolitans, they were exercising with what we call the Neapolitan exercise of just sleeping. There were people sleeping all the day. It's called gymnastica de Neapolitana.
It was really, to me, it was a very good relief I would say, a very good relief. Now I could read, I could do my hobbies and, as a matter of fact, I did many things. I could learn much better a certain kind of trade, I became a good watchmaker, of course I also did some painting. I was able to group with artists, of course, in a different kind of officers’ group, there were some good artists, professors. I was teaching at university, there was a little university. For a period, they even tried to train me as an actor, because there was a certain type of group making a little play, so then they decided I was not good material for actor but there was many things happening. I did studying, I learned bridge, I became a good chess player.
When I think back, amazing, I did kind of models for University of Law hall [Lahore University], for a hydro-electric scheme, and a project in architecture. I mean you could utilise your time in doing that, but I had a good chance of learning English, because I knew already some scrap of English, because I studied when I was a kid, but certainly I could read a lot of magazines, books, so I could fill 24 hours interestingly in many ... to me it has been quite an interesting period of my life.
Oh plenty, absolutely, plenty. It was a pity to conceive it to the end of the day. There were bins full of bread that nobody ate, I mean, we had sub-contractors, there were Indians of course, and we were never ... I mean, we could buy anything we wanted, whether the type of token money, because doing my work at university then I finished to get really solid rupees, so in no time I was doing machine to do spaghetti, I was doing machine to do buttons, so I became a little millionaire with really solid rupees, so that it was a pretty interesting period of my life. I wish I could have written a little bit of diary in period; I could write some very good books.
Well, I knew that was just the parenthesis. As a matter of fact, any idea of escaping was only at the very very first beginning when you have still that kind of belicose attitude. I mean, I tried to escape early in the period because I felt that now is the time to do something. Possibly you have to try to escape — it's part of the duty of any officer. I mean, the first thing to do is you fight. If you are not killed that means you have to do something else. If you are a prisoner you do something else, so the idea of escaping to me just was normal. It was a very stupid idea, incidentally, because there was no question of even proportioning the temerity and faculty of the enterprise. I mean, to escape from northern India and reach the boundary toward Burma, following the Ganges for which we had only a very sketchy map, apart from the fact that we had to camouflage ourselves as Indian or whatever, but the question of dreaming, I think, is typical of the period, of being young first and second, because you are totally persuaded that you have to do something as part of your commitment for which you have been educated. That’s the power of the brainwashing that you should never underestimate ... [laughs] ...
Yes, I did try to escape ...
Well, I was lucky because to escape — the escape it must be done at night-time with the agreement of the Indian guards and ... we tried to manipulate the Indians. If you don't know how they made it, a kind of barbed wire across two lines, the Indian guards are in the middle, so you try to bribe them in one way, they say, ‘okay, yes,’ then you go and cut the first and then you cut to the second one and eventually when you are on the other side, the bastards start to scream his nut, eventually there is a revolution and you escape in the jungle and eventually they come to catch one, they take one behind you, and eventually we couldn't do a thing about it. They were the Gurkhas behind us and we were lucky not to be ... I was myself with another officer and we were not shot but, subsequently, similar cases happened that were shot, so I was lucky again.
Yes, we were very naive really, very naive, but I mean you can't escape from India. But it was worth trying, I think it's part of the philosophy, the mentality of the period and the age, I could see that it was fully justified.
Well, the risk is always there, but at least with the kind of mine that we were using at the time, you had to do a really precise, tedious operation of stringing each wire, making sure that the distance was right, and then close to the gap, and a little pressure could have exploded or something could go wrong in the details of the mechanism. No, we had accidents before, but [after] we took charge as officers none happened. But as close as I was to what I felt being dead, when I went with a truck, without ever realising it was a minefield, this mine exploded and the truck was blown and I fell into the hole, the crater of the explosion. Quite frankly, even the concept of touching yourself to see if you had all the eyes, the leg, the face on and you feel that you are still physically existing, to me that was the closest I was, became, to be dead. I was not injured seriously, the other officer that was with me he lost his ear, the truck was destroyed and they didn't send the ambulance from the stronghold because they were convinced there was no need for that, so that has been to me the much closest accident that could happen to me during the war.
... it was the crater of the explosion ...
But they said there was no reason for it, there wasn't. I mean the idea of a truck exploding, on an explosion, there was no ...
They would think I was dead. That's it.
Oh, I guess it was a question that gradually we climbed out of it and we came back again ... the only thing I know [is] that a few days later, the chaplain made a Mass to thank God for the miracle. I remember that.
Well, I'm talking about Tobruk to Cairo. There was a railway of course at the time, and I was part of an elite group of priests, doctors and sick people, injured people. And these people that went ahead had certain basics, particularly the priests had their portable altar and paraphernalia. Of course I didn't have very much ... in that kind of trucks they were carrying us towards Egypt, they were just almost railway cattle trucks. During all the stops, one of the stops during the night, I said listen to me, because the Arabs, they stole from the truck whatever there was belonging to each one. So the following day, we went there, we didn't find very much in the confusion. I finished to have something that I didn't have, so in the confusion I got some benefit.
Well, the Arabs stole everything from the trucks, leaving a few paraphernalia that was very... not relevant to the majority of the other people, so I could eventually have my little belonging that ... I mean, you must realise that when you are prisoner, little things — a brush, a little petrol lamp or a bit of sugar or a few packets of cigarettes — that creates wealth, you have no idea what it means at the beginning, what it means for this kind of episode in life. It is just unbelievable what this life [means] when you go to people [in] certain primitive conditions as we were at the time as prisoner.
That's why, I think, that the philosophy of the poor people [is] that they always are attracted by the concept of revolution. Here in reality people that have very little, have got very little to lose in the confusion, and in the kind of upheaval, whatever, they finish to get something. That's why revolution is a very appealing concept to the masses. You believe, you agree?
Yes, yes, opportunity, just to get the opportunity. Not equality, but equality of opportunity, you follow?
Pretty good example ... it was a little episode but very significant to me.
So, back in the concentration camp, you seized a few opportunities there, didn't you? What kinds of opportunities presented themselves in the concentration camp that you were able to take advantage of?
Well, firstly, I could utilise all the time that I had available to study. I realised that even if I had completed my military studies and all the engineering studies, that I had to complete studying engineering and I had in mind a particular degree in civil engineering ... to be recognised officially because you didn't have a degree in the society. So that was one aspect of study that I could use. I could utilise that time available. And there was plenty of books, I mean, through the Red Cross, there was plenty of books, books of all languages, whatever, certainly I improved my knowledge of English and other kinds of trades (that is part of my background) so I could see my background of a tradesman that I had learned from my grandfather and my father. I had my little workshop there and I could do many things, cages for instance for the poultry, cages for the rabbits. We had, I organised, also a special still to do grappa. You see you could ferment the skin of a banana, a fruit or grape and make grappa, so I know that kind of thing. Eventually you'd be surprised how many things you could do in a concentration camp provided you have the basic tools and a bit of will to do it.
I beg your pardon?
The currency was token money — that means a sort of useless piece of paper — that justify, to justify ... but is ... if you realise that if you sell outside and I was able to sell to Lahore University, and that, university models in engineering, architecture, and I was doing some of those ... automatically they were paying me in good money, that means rupee and that means local currency and that of course is much more valuable than token money. So I could buy many other things including, for instance, oil colour for painting, brushes, tools, books ...
No no no, you couldn't go out. Of course, you had the type of contractor that would offer you these things, you could go to the contractor, make the order and the things would come after. I mean, you are still surrounded by the periphery of barbed wire but there is always [a] local contractor that probably is part of the system, who could organise and buy ... basically if you had the money you could buy even a motorboat or whatever, you could buy anything. You could order and they would bring it to you. If you need it or you could use it, it is not relevant. I mean, there was sufficient amount of freedom, part of the authority — provided you didn't do anything illegal, you were allowed to do many things.
Well, the concept of becoming a wealthy man, a wealthy entrepreneur started right there because I could see that, in the average of all people, if you had a certain amount of initiative you could certainly utilise it, even in a surrounded area ... something different, that was a good example of entrepreneur ... entrepreneuring as a skill that certainly helped me later on to do what I did in Australia.
I was certainly very well looked after, because even if you consider for instance that I could have spaghetti already cooked come to me, because I could already have made a special machine to do spaghetti, so I eventually did the machine so I got this paid to me in kind. Follow ... this kind of relationship between the other people that were utilising the result of your, let's call, effort and you getting back the effort.
With my machine.
The camp for me was a relaxing period. I won't say I never regret having spent ... I mean there was no alternative, but I did the best I could under the circumstances. That I think is a lesson — do the best you can if you are there.
Well, after all the war, all the treaty, all the kind of relationship developed during, soon after, the war, the prisoner [are] the last people to be looked after. I mean, you wait until everything else is done. So the war practically finished in 1945, but it was in the middle of 1946 that eventually I was allowed to go back to Italy. It was certainly very painful waiting, because you never know when there will be a decision to assist you, what to do. On the other hand you are nobody, even when you went back home, people, you have lost all the friends, you didn't know what to do. Most of the positions ... were available were already taken, so automatically you had to start from scratch.
Well certainly, I went back [to] Naples on this ship from Bombay. It was different kind of ship that took from Ismailia to Bombay, this time was another ship that went up to Naples, much smaller. The return in a way was in a sort of depressed state. I mean the euphoria of '42 when you were supposed to be still on the winning side. Therefore if you are a prisoner you didn't know, at least, you hoped the war would go one way or another. Now of course we knew at least that the war was lost. My war was lost, therefore it was a depressing period of my life, and I went back to Gioia del Colle with my father, my mother was there, and they said they were very happy to see me, but it was a pretty short period because now I had to catch up. The idea of catch up on time lost. Not only was I robbed of my youth, as part of my military academy first. Now I had lost an important segment of my life from 25, from 28 to 32 basically, so I had to catch up and the idea of catching up on time lost and space lost became more important because my aim was to complete my study in engineering and get the degrees of engineering — is very important to get a sort of visiting card to go anywhere. I was still convinced at that time and I am still convinced that the official recognition of your title is very essential for you to move over.
So I went to Gioia del Colle and I was only there for a few weeks, if any, and you could see one of my photographs when I came back from concentration camp. It looked like we were really sick people, I was really sick. But I went to Torino and still as an officer and I was in one of the units and straight away I took part of the readjustment in life in Italy. I had to think about what to do with my studies and that was a very important period for me. Almost August, by the end of 1946, I was able to complete my studies in civil engineering and by the end of the year, I already had a degree in civil engineering ...
Because I had only to complete the segment of study that were not recognised for the one done in the military academy, so I had to do some complementary examination. I would say that I was pretty decisive in what I wanted to do in my studies.
I was very motivated, not only did I do a degree in civil engineering but since my background was in electrical subjects I continued all the corresponding examinations in electrical for which, in a matter of the following six months, I got a degree also in electrical engineering. So that was a very good step forward for me to get two degrees in engineering. Now, I said, I could start moving and do exactly what I want. That was my essential visiting card to decide to leave the army.
To start with, my brother was treating me as a second-rate citizen because I was not ... I was out of conception of what was the new life. He felt that I was completely useless and the idea of having spent five to six years out of Italy, I could not adjust myself to the new condition. I felt myself that Italy almost didn't belong to me anymore ... .
... quite remarkable, so I had to decide to do something. Here or there. And it was a very difficult period of adjustment in Italy.
Even if I was still in the army, I was very keen enough to get a job, which I did. Actually I went to Milano, I was able to get a job with an Italian company. This is just a chapter that eventually came to a conclusion in Australia because that company — building transmission lines all over the world — got a contract in Italy and that company engaged me, mainly for the knowledge of English and French. So the two languages would be useful for the company to send in one of the places where this kind of a language was useful and, when this contract was landed in Australia, it was trusted to me the plan to go to Australia to build the transmission. So that was a great opening for me. I agreed that I would not necessarily decide to come to Australia or anywhere else. My idea was just to go somewhere. And [during] the same period I was dealing with some South American company called Techint and I could possibly have gone to São Paulo because I was studying a little bit of Portuguese. I mean, to know a bit of Spanish and then Portuguese is complicated enough, but it was due to my wife that by then was my girlfriend. She had this sprinkle of English and she had studied Mark Twain at university. She said 'much better Australia', so eventually I accepted to come to Australia. She had the influence of the girlfriend of what you are supposed to do tomorrow.
Well, Australia is known in the Italian geographical book as continente nuovissimo, the very new continent. And the only thing I knew about this was kangaroo. I know the words of Melbourne, Brisbane or Sydney, but I didn't know anything about these facts. Australia was just an adventure.
Find out, exactly. In reality it was the idea of going somewhere which I didn't really know the purpose, I didn't know much about the future, that idea of adventure was mainly the spring that pushed me to come to Australia.
Now I ... at the time [in] our city had different contacts with different people. I was living in place in Torino, it is the most beautiful city, I would say that of all the other, all the other cities in the world, if I had to choose, beside Sydney, I would go to Torino. I'm very much in love with Torino having done in Torino the military academy and all the studies, so for me it is really the prime Italian city, and there I was living in a boarding house and through the boarding house lady I knew different kind of girls, different kind of people, different kind of ladies and by chance I knew also this old lady that eventually was the mother of my girlfriend. I didn't know these people but I knew the mother and the mother mentioned about these three daughters and eventually I met the three daughters and the one that to me looked more close to me in size, first of all, and also more attractive, and that was the beginning of my, I would say, my love affair with Amina. And I would say that if there was any, really, love affair in my life, it was just that. I really love intensely this relationship, which was very brief incidentally, because I met my wife in the period of January, yes, Jan 1951 then, and I was then living and working in Milano and I was going occasionally into Torino and even if was practically winter time at the beginning, with my little motorcar which is smaller than this small car that you see around. And going through the ice of the autostrada, normally every two weeks or so, so my contact with my girlfriend was pretty much limited. But that was my really serious deep love affair, that I had with anybody, that was Amina.
And she encouraged me to go to Australia. Well she made a final decision about which of the two different solutions. So, in a way, she was probably the one that is responsible for me to be in Australia.
No, no, she didn't come with me. She came eight or nine months later, mainly because the project was immediate and the passage also for paperwork was not possible to be done in that short time and she joined me nine months later, so I finished to have two marriages. One in Italy and one in Australia, so I am the one having two marriages instead of one.
No, I didn't marry her before, I married her when I was in Australia and I married her when she was in Italy by then. And then I married her again when she came here, so there was two marriages, one called by proxy, the other one will be the final one.
That's it. That's it.
I think by then that my girlfriend became probably really became in love with me. On the beginning I was not convinced because she was probably very choosy, I would imagine or probably she was not convinced, but eventually I was sure that her decision was final.
I recall simply wilderness, wilderness, because here, even coming here, everything was too hard, very hard to get — the first thing that I learned here was just very hard to get. The idea of coming here — I came with this company — my function was mainly to coordinate the technical. I mean, my English by then was enough, not really well enough but enough to manipulate all the customers, the clients, the supplier and I became a kind of 'jack of all trades' here, to build the first transmission line in the country — that was the Sydney to Tallawarra — the first transmission line in Australia. There was a lot of blackouts, I mean, if you consider the fact that bushfires were burning all the wood poles, so the little power that was available was spasmodic and no-one was surprised that the power was available only for a few hours a day; probably you don't remember that.
The transmission lines from the power stations say in Tallawarra, near Port Kembla, should send the power to the Sydney and there is a line to bear the power. That was the first important transmission line built in Australia, I talk about 1951. And that power line was built with a very, I would say, skeleton staff — if you consider today, with all the paraphernalia of background, of trucks, tools, cranes and equipment, there were very little and we did miracles. This company built up a camp in Menai, where there is now the [Australian] Atomic [Energy] Commission, and we'd a simple camp in tents. The power was only given to us through a wire under the road, a pipe for water and the people were just living a very simple, rudimentary life. I mean, the idea of ... not simply for these immigrants but also for the Australians in many projects, including along the railway, they were living that way. I mean, life in Australia in 1951, most people could not remember, even with the high standard, the relatively high standard of living, [it] was extremely very primitive. I mean, there was no air conditioning in the office ... if you consider traffic congestion did not exist, transport, communication, all sorts of other facilities that now we take for granted, so the tremendous development that has taken place in Australia from the '50s to the '90s is a great compliment, a great tribute to this country, done in 40 years, changing the standard of living here, at least two and a half times, at least if you consider the GDP, the General Domestic Product [Gross Domestic Product] of the country, and you consider the fact that now we are, taking into account even inflation, that we are two and a half times better [than] what we were then. Take the immigrant, that also made the contribution in the period — this is what changed Australia in the 50 years.
Yes. Not only were there Italians, they brought also the Italian chaplain. That was just a tribe of Italians coming here for the purpose, and I'm pretty sure they didn't come as immigrants, I didn't feel myself, that I was an immigrant. I came here for a project. So they came here to do the transmission line; there was a compact team of Italian skilled tradesmen. They were doing in absolutely record time with total discipline, efficiency and there was a miracle because people couldn't realise that a single man landed in one spot that particular morning when the truck was coming in the evening, the foundation was already ready. That man would have dug the forefooting by the day, by himself.
Absolutely, good skilled and selected people. It was a privilege, by the way, to come to Australia sent by this ... all these people they didn't come by ship, they came by plane. Mostly people never saw the plane before, so they were already given a special kind of treatment, let's face it, so they considered them proud if being part of this team.
Well, I'd fixed, I'd already signed, an agreement with this people for three years, so at least I had three years of commitment, so in a way, even for a trip, I think it was worthwhile for my wife to come here.
Well, the idea now, three years is already a long time. We had already children, Marco was born I think, 1952-53, then we purchased a house in Clontarf, a little house, for 5000 pounds. The money came as part of a loan from my employer and part from my father-in-law, part from my saving and part from the bank, so I had already made a commitment. So after three years, we had already made a commitment, so, but we didn't finish to pay the house, and it was a chance. At least they asked me to option for another two years, and I did, so eventually my contract lasted five years to me, it was a fantastic period of apprenticeship. You see, you never stop learning — this five years had been a tremendous period of learning ...
... this first transmission line, still the transmission line in the country, when bushfires were raging all over and power was rationed, so that was the first adventure in Australia.
I should go back ... and my first visit, of course, was in the bush. The bush was all burnt out, as a matter of fact, when you go to the bush, you became all incinerated with ashes or whatever. That was the type of thing we were carrying ... practically the transmission line had to go through that kind of route, Sydney-Homebush-Tallawarra. I was certainly trying to find ... my accommodation initially was at the Metropole, so I was just going to the Metropole, which of course was one of a luxury hotel in Sydney, compared with the hotel that we have at present. It was August, to me it was very cold because I came from the corresponding August in Europe. I was freezing. There was not even powerpoint. So the only idea I had [was] to put a 500 watt bulb in the centre, kept on for a few hours, and that was the only heating I had in the room ... and the Metropole in that period, there must have been a lot of country people, and I was astonished to see these old people having that type of breakfast in the morning, that I could see what they are getting, steak and eggs or whatever, right in the morning and meeting some of the ladies in the lift, up and down. They were just like puppets, they all looked to me like they came to me from a very artificial world. But on the site, when we started getting all the equipment, we had this camp at Menai, very primitive area, tents for our people, very few equipment, I'm talking about motorcar, whatever, we had 40 firemen give us this line for the power, little bit of water under the road, we made a trench in the road, we just connected where the water [was] and we were living there. I would say, the first week or so, I was living in a Nissen hut, type of galvanised, well rusty galvanised, type of small army packs or hut, whatever, and in the beginning I was trying to get labour to help us, and the answer we got everywhere was that was the very reason you are here, we have no labour, so there was a scarcity of labour. The reason we were here, we were told, because we don't have labour. Remarkable.
Well, the contacts first were with the client, the commission [Electricity Commission of NSW]. And we had one of these stationary buildings, old and dilapidated office, and the commission was moving all over the place in Sydney. They don't have any posh, tall, multi-storey building at present, where they have practically built a tremendous amount of public servant. And some of the people I met there, I remember this Mr Ogle, he was one of the men, he invited me, he was injured, he had really one leg, he was injured in Tobruk and just jokingly we started getting on a friendly tone that we were opposite side of the fence then and now we are working together, Mr Ogle.
Yes, I found the people very friendly ...
Well, I found people very helpful, particularly [as] my English was very primitive, I must admit, and it has not improved dramatically in 40 years. The fact that we were surrounded by, in the office, with our agent, Dickson Primer, everywhere we went we were looking to help these people to assist us, so we certainly had a lot of friendly people around us, no doubt about that. We were trying to find a bit of a way of living and — to show you how we were completely out of tune — we were stranded one evening somewhere toward, from Homebush to Sydney, [it] was too late to find our accommodation for the night. If we went to one of these typical hotel, tried to get accommodation, there was no chance, I mean, the hotel, were only for drink, not for sleeping, so were surprised that the hotel was just not capable of even hospitality for the night. Typical of the period.
Probably ... they should have been.
Well, even that. I mean, the question of not being used to local food, where [we] dramatically started getting this kind of breakfast in the morning, probably a sandwich at lunchtime, but we had always one of the typical, I would say, success of the group of people in the company — was just to have a cook with us and the Chaplain, I remember. So we didn't suffer for the question of cuisines, but the cuisine at the time in Australia, I would say, was still very primitive.
Oh, I think ingredients are typical for everywhere, I mean, I didn't think he found any problem for ingredient, it was the way to cook it. And you could see, nobody got any problem today for ingredient, the cuisine in Australia become multi-national and I found here the ingredient practically, including Chinese, to cook according to their own way.
The first period was just three years and I renewed it for another two years.
Well, first of all, the company was a multi-national. let's put it that way, and I felt that now Australia could give to me some sort of scope to stay here, without having link with overseas, being controlled from overseas. I think one of the instinctive elements that I saw — that first of all, I didn't control, know I could control, the direction of the enterprise, no, I knew exactly the profit were going in or out of the company or the country. So the idea of developing something that was entirely local Australian starting creeping in my mind. And I must admit that in that period, came an accountant, giving instruction to me, where to sit, what to do, where to stay and I resent very much, particularly accountants. And that came in my mind that I start to do something different. Well it took a bit of time to ... I mean, the idea of starting a new enterprise if you have no money is sort of a big problem. Today, when I say, what's the capital? Then I didn't have any capital. And the first thing I did, I teamed with ... friendly person in Port Kembla. And that was the very beginning of what was a plan, just start to getting to the point of an organisation that could continue to do similar kind of project in Australia and the company that was made of me and him. But I eventually felt that there were two more people in the old company, that were worthwhile considering coming to stay to Australia, in Australia. So we have four people.
The name was Mr William, he was the owner of a crane operation and he lent 3000 pounds to me, the 3000 pounds that look a small amount of money but was a tremendous amount of money, if you think, at the period, we were able to buy some huts and position a little living quarter in Port Kembla, myself painted the 'T' on the first barrack. I managed to write the corporate name of Transfield, that of course has changed gradually with the years, but he put the mortgage, in order to make sure that the 3000 pounds were not lost. He left eventually, is possibly one year later, because he didn't want to increase the capital and he made a tremendous amount of profit. I think that from the 3000 pounds he got at least four or five times more by his part of profit, of the first contract at Port Kembla. That was the first basic development that gave strength to the company.
I mean, you start making work, particularly the type of ... only, not fabrication, but just erection of steelwork, for this you don't need very much money. What you need is basically organisation and management system, hiring equipment that you can pay later, and more or less move on the progress payment of the customer. By then you should establish a very good relationship with what was then Australian Iron & Steel — and I consider that Australian Iron & Steel (now, of course, BHP) as really the altar of the beginning of Transfield, and that many times I tell them, particularly to some of the union at Port Kembla, that I needed to put an altar here right to just thank BHP for the support and we've been living for many, many years in the shadow of BHP, not only Port Kembla, but Newcastle, Kwinana, Whyalla and many other major operations of BHP, so BHP, the Great Australian, has been also very great support of Transfield.
Franco, this is a very important story, the story of the beginnings of Transfield, because it's really an amazing story and this is the acorn from which the oak or the huge tree grew, so I just want to get this really, really clear and I want you to — maybe we'll just go over it — to get that beginning really clear because you were working for this Italian company, you were unhappy with it, and you saw again an opportunity, and the opportunity arose not because you had capital, or because you had a lot of backing behind you but because you saw there was work that needed to be done, and you thought that an Australian-based company could do that work instead of a multi-national. Now I would just like us to go back because you summarised an awful lot there quickly ...
... a lot of details ...
I just have to ask you a question ... Franco, could you tell us about the beginnings of Transfield, how it started and what you needed to put it together to start it. Could you tell us the story of the beginning of Transfield?
Well, every beginning is set in a very complicated ... when you have to jump from one horse to another one, you must make sure the second one is faster than the previous one. And the idea, of course, it was also a risk because you lose what is called a secure position, altogether I was one of the chief executives, if not the chief executive, of course there was a boss that was controlled by the overseas interests, but I had to take a risk, in reality, we took a risk, a risk that was more or less a calculated risk. The fact that my wife's father, an engineer, had at that time a very important die casting complex there, and he had always been looking to me, as the only male in the family, since the three girls at that time were not even married, that could have taken charge of that shop. Therefore having a safety factor, you understand that, as an engineer, you have to say to yourself, if something went wrong ... I knew that I could go back to Italy and I could start or at least to continue that kind of activity, so the safety factor was already there.
The second one was the feeling that this country needed a type of activity, we were just starting to see the beginning, my instinct that [it] was a land of, a tremendous amount of land with, not enough people and we were here to do something, and there will be opportunities to do it, the big thing was to start. Every time you start you never know the end but you have to start unless you could prove that something could happen. [telephone ringing]
Well, certainly the knowledge of the market ...
The new question is here now.
Well, certainly, I didn't have much experience, let's face it, so now looking back, there are so many elements, they look possibly trivial at present, but they were just as important. The fact that I didn't know even the existence of a Memorandum of Association, Articles, or whatever. At that time, I had a very dear friend called Keith Bogan, a tall, a charming Australian, he was just living close to us in Clontarf and I was taking with Mr Neil [sp?], together in the morning with my little Morris Minor in town, to give a lift to them, but for me it was a very good way of just practising English. At that time I asked them ... one of those was an accountant and he introduced to me, introduced me to solicitors in town — I mean, even the solicitors talk about ... they were Taylor, Ferguson, etc, in Pitt Street — and to see these kind of offices were just unconceivable today, [cough] excuse me, and so I finished up in the hands of an old man called Checchi [sp?]. He gave me some type of details, what to do, application, etc, etc. In particular I had to decide what was the name of the company. It might be relevant to know that already I had a list of about 20 to 30 names, I was an avid reader at the time and still I am now of Fortune magazine, one of the leading management periodicals published in the States, and of all these names one was Transfield, because I thought it was a transmission line in the field ... shortening to Transfield. When I listed all these companies, these names, I arrived at the name of Transfield ... it looks all right to me, it looks all right to me, Transfield, and that's why he gave me the type of support for the name Transfield that then becomes the trading name for the company in Australia. So that was one of the aspects.
Well, as a manager, I think you should be acquainted with what happens in the world in management and Fortune was a magazine that gave us some insight into what happens in many companies in industry all over the world. And to me the idea of having a company, or at least to be part of a company, that was an independent company, of which I was really the boss, was really tempting and, as I mentioned, the story of the risk in a way, having already done so many things before, so the risk — was not really excessive, if you think about all my history and background of war, etc. So it was a small risk to try to build something completely your own in a new country. It was a great challenge.
Now what you need is a customer. We had a customer. Second ... Now what you need is a customer. We had a customer. Second ...
Well, the customer is BHP, I was dealing with BHP (then called Australian Iron & Steel), therefore they knew me, so it was a also a question of talking to them, if I would be accepted, they said, a different company.
Well, that was a new contract anyway, so that was not switching. There was a new contract for which we had to tender, therefore, if you tender for a job and if the type of price is acceptable, then that's it, that's what happened. These top people from AIS [Australian Iron & Steel], Mr Duncan [sp?], I still remember him, an historical man. I still remember when I went to see him at Port Kembla, with my friend, Mr William, having to discuss with them the possibility of this new company coming into the picture. He basically said, 'let them have a go.’ That was the beginning. So once our price was lower than the competitors, and I don't know how many competitors were there in the new contract, that was the direction of the steelwork for the slabbing mill in Port Kembla, one of the projects of the time, very important for the production of rolling products, Duncan gave us the okay.
Well, we knew already the kind of prices that were used at the time. As I said, the contract were pretty fat, I mean, the profit in these kinds of contracts was pretty good, because simply the lack of a competitor, or competition and lack of labour, was one of the ingredients. I mean we today, in the business we could do, it was even after 20 or 30 years, we are doing projects that the prices ... are unbelievable now, due to competition. Therefore they were very keen to see another element coming in to the picture and I think that that also was one of the reasons why BHP gave us a chance and we were successful.
Well, capital, very little. I mean Mr William gave us the three thousand pounds for the huts, the essential ...
No, we borrowed it from him. So basically he didn't give it to me but we were buying, we were partners at that time, the second and third partner has not yet reached them. Zambelli was the second one that died a couple of years ago and Carlo Salteri joined, the third, joined about October or November, the same year. Mind you, the company started about June or July in 1956. Therefore the money was rolling in, I would say, even before we were doing the expenditure, because the question of the progress payment, we were able to get, generously I would say, from AIS, was such that we really didn't need capital. As a matter of fact, we were accumulating profit pretty rapidly. I would say that in one year we could make a profit of the order of, well, on the basic capital, of a company, we would be able to double the capital quite easily. Now you should realise that, in firms, to get five to six percent profit is already a great achievement but, at that time, my feeling and my experience [was] that we could easily reach profit in the order of 100 percent of the paid up capital.
Extraordinary opportunity. I would say that the fact that eventually only this little company has mushroomed in Australia, unbelievable. The volume of capacity that was built, particularly through the immigration — most of these little companies were part of immigrants coming here and they started their own business. In a way, Transfield at the time was also a little immigrant complex — we've certainly developed in the years a very total ... national entity using a lot of ethnics, but basically at the very beginning, was just from little Italian community.
Well, Carlo Salteri, and I must give credit to him, I could probably be a sort of entrepreneurial mentality, but he is a much steadier character than myself. I would say that what has been done in 38 years ... is also greatly due to his presence. Very stabilising character, good worker, good engineer and we've been able to support each other, much better than we could in matrimony. He is younger than me, I don't know if he will survive me, or vice versa, but certainly it has been a pretty good relationship.
So there was this exponentially growing company, you got that first contract and got a wonderful base for the future out of that first contract. What then happened with the rest of your contracts — how did you go about building up the business?
Ah, it is a long story, how many contracts Transfield has made in 40 years, almost just unbelievable. But the one episode that I like to mention — with the money we made from the first contract, we were able to buy some land in Seven Hills. Seven Hills looks almost a sort of mythical name. Rome was built on seven hills. So Seven Hills, crystal-box town, we bought ... we bought 20 acres of land and the first experience I found with a friend, this was with a Jeanie [sp?] — I don't remember the exact name — this fellow was able to convince us that he could deal with the purchase much better than ourselves, simply because he didn't want to distract us with the kind of dealing and buying and selling houses or whatever, or land. He was able to buy double acreage with our money and take half for himself. So that was the first experience you deal with friends. Of course it was normal dealing, I mean, we couldn't even, type of, bring him in court. But in reality there were 40 acres of land that eventually we went to buy later on at a much dear price, for which half was given to us and half was taken by this fellow, and he was only sort of assisting us to buy the land.
At the very beginning, and that eventually went to build a workshop, what now is a very ... complicated complex of engineering set up in Seven Hills. But at that time we built a skeleton workshop and the customer, that was Comsteel, another subsidiary of BHP, we were supposed to get the contract for certain structures in Unanderra, very close to Port Kembla again. We didn't have much work done, not even the foundation, but that was a bit of a strategic ... strategic cheating, I would say, to Comsteel. They came there, they saw bulldozers roaming all over the place and noise and dust, actually we said we are building a workshop for them, that was sufficient, almost on the tradition of Rommel, we make sufficient noise and dust to confuse the enemy ...
Yes, very great general, that I had the fortune and the chance to meet in North Africa, so they gave us a contract and that gave us the substance to build the first workshop in Seven Hills.
We didn't have a workshop.
We pretended that we were building a workshop.
No, they gave the contract, that was close enough to get money. The same workshop where, about 30 years later, we had the special privilege and the honour to give hospitality to the Pope. In that workshop, eventually in '86, His Holiness the Pope came to Australia and Seven Hills was chosen as the place where the Pope could speak to 15,000 workers ... we assembled the families in [the] great hall. We cleared all the machines, everything, so the workshop became a sort of great assembly house and we heard His Holiness speaking with a very human tone about the sanctity of work — that was a very good message that he gave to everybody and to our people. That means if you don't work, he said, you are not entitled to eat.
Well, people, they were convinced that the Vatican had some shares in Transfield ... [interruption] ...
Very, very touching experience, that I had with the Holiness. He didn't convert me. Still it was a great experience.
Well, I didn't organise it, things happen. There was a need of assembling people where the Pope could talk and the first message I received [was] from my good friend, Gerry Gleeson, that was then the Secretary to the Premier [Neville Wran]. He suggested that it could be a good idea if we could give hospitality to the Pope in some way. There you are, things just fall from the sky.
But sometimes things don't fall from the sky and you have to plan and manipulate for them, and you've already described how one strategy that you used in business, you actually learned from Rommel. Have there been any other strategies that came from your military background that you have been able to employ in building up the business?
Well, from my military background, I have a tremendous amount of gratitude. If you just read Machiavelli, that is one of my favourite handbooks of management ...
Much better. You find out that you have to maintain a certain kind of steady discipline and control and good behaviour. First with your example, you must be first in the line, the other people follow, so my experience in so many years is that people follow ... providing you treat them properly, humanly, if you look after their own behaviour, their own welfare, to their own benefit, and it is incredible what you can do with the soldiers in the field. I mean, you are their, you have responsibility for their, life, and still you can see the commander and that kind of management discipline that is taught in the military career, if it is done properly, is a tremendous amount of management structure that could be used independently, including the families.
You have first of all, [to] be yourself, lead them with the example, with cheerful authority. You don't need to be harsh with them, you'd be surprised in fact that you get, you create, enthusiasm and how many times, how many times I have been around dozens and dozens of projects all over Australia and I could see the result, by far much bigger, much greater, than I had already anticipated and it leads you to the consensus and the initiative that you have spirited in the people around you.
In thinking about management and your idea of taking care of people, have you at any stage during the period of Transfield, for example during the 1980s, when everybody else was doing it, had to retrench people, had to put people off?
We never retrenched people, but I must admit in the last year or so due to the current situation in Australia, it has been painful to us to reduce personnel in Western Australia, also in New South Wales, in South Australia. While we're expanding, as we are doing in many other areas of the Pacific, and we cannot transfer personnel simply because, first of all, Australians will not be easy type of people going overseas unless they are managers. And the managers, you know, these are type of national, they are paid very much, in fact to me these executives ... are paid incredible amount of money. To have one of our expatriates — this word looks to me, a sort of colonial term, expatriates — it costs to us easily $300,000 to $400,000 a year, but when you talk about personnel we use normally overseas. We use local labour. In Australia, instead due to this depressed market, we have been compelled, that is really tragic, so we had, for instance, until the 1990s, somewhere about 6000 people, 8000 people, in our labour force, now I think we are down to 6000. So it has to me been pretty sad, and I receive occasionally from these people some letters — how, what happens —and it is very difficult to explain to people when they are retrenched the reason, why him not somebody else, so it is a sort of serious human problem to explain to people and to justify retrenchment; it is a pity.
Don't expect any ... in a nutshell, there are so many aspects. First of all you should be able to know the subject. I mean you must have a basic, particularly in our profession, basic knowledge of the subject, engineering background, and I think that is a essential, that an executive level of manager should have very good technical knowledge and be also familiar with the up-to-date technology, up-to-date equipment, system, method. The question of training the personnel, teaching what are the essentials for that particular project, the question of giving clear instruction, timely instruction, never let the people to get starved of information, or starving of data, or equipment. Just as you need in the war period, it is a major crime not to have enough ammunition for the soldier, so the question of let's call it, supply on our side, must be timely. So is the importance of programs, in order that the people know in time what to do, do properly, because the correction sometimes is more expensive than to do things properly. Create the team work, the question of the team work is another very essential element and I found that if you give it the concept of urgency, it helps particularly on field work, when you are isolated, to give you the idea that the job is urgent.
Of course, provided that certain basics of safety measures have been taken, and safety has been a constant problem since the beginning of any operation, and I would say now is much more critical than it was probably 20 years ago, when you could count in the, say, the project of Snowy Mountains [Hydro-electric] Authority, I talk about a big project, that is the Snowy Mountains Scheme, where the number of dead were normally considered a fraction percentage of the link of the tunnel and now, for instance, we have built the [Sydney] Harbour Tunnel and we didn't have an accident. Another aspect of course is a question of maintaining good industrial relation. I mean the industrial relations are the essential element for stability of the operation, to give a continuity of work, and make sure that every day, I would say, the foreman, particularly, know exactly the kind of program they expect them to do for the following day. And so the managers, and so the big people in the office that are supposed to be the guiding element of the project that is being done on site. Now I could explain, infinitum, but there is a tremendous amount of personal, I would say, presence at stake for the success of any operation.
There's really so much, vast field, that we have covered at Transfield, possibly due to my amphibious, amphibious attitude from the civil to the electrical to the mechanical, and to also aspects of architecture because we have also part of architecture to some of our subsidiary.
Certainly the Harbour Tunnel has been a great project, with a great success, lot of controversial on the beginning, satisfaction on the end, but you talk about transmission lines. To me, transmission lines put Transfield ... it is really the very core of the history of the company. When you are building along hundreds and hundreds of mile, repetitive work, in inaccessible country, and you have this team of people working with method, continuity, efficiency and result — and some of the first transmission lines that we built and it was 220 kV line in South Australia, where we did also the testing. A transmission line is a repetitive kind of task, different task, different conditions, but mainly you've got repetition of the same kind of tower and you test this kind of tower, so the testing itself is also quite an important engineering feature. Transfield had the first testing station in Australia and understand now we still have the first testing, so that people from Indonesia, or from Malaysia or from New Zealand, and also from whatever, Australia, of course they send the towers to us to test for them. It means to subject the structure to the critical loads, because this is a very important type of engineering feature where you cannot afford to spend more than what is necessary — because if you spend four times, should have been 10 tonnes, is 12 tonnes, then you multiply by one potential losses that you make. So we had the first testing station that was built early in '58, and of course it has been upgraded constantly, you understand we are upgrading ...
Well, without going to the very complex engineering aspect of the construction in the shipyard, that's when we were doing another frigate for the navy in Williamstown ...
Yes, to build a naval ship for the ex-enemy, remarkable, but you see that the friendly relationship I have personally with the navy personnel, with the Minister for Defence, you could see with time, the maturity of events changing aspects of relationship.
Now, one project to me that is extremely important in the history of Transfield, has been the construction of the semi-submersible oil rig in West Australia. These of course are very huge complexes for the exploration of petrol and we built this in West Australia. We didn't have any shipyard — it's a very wide tall system, the project was done at a loss at the time, I quoted about $19 million and we spent $22 million. It was a loss but it was a tremendous amount of feature, a great success, I would say, for a company like us, to build a semi-submersible oil rig that practically made us two submarines with a tall system and oil facilities on top. You could see them working many parts of the world.
Well, it is part of the risks — any contractor will also forecast certain results and there are so many variables. First of all you can make a mistake in tendering, that is so easy. Second, you have all other people putting spanners in the system. We had at the time ...
Because it was very complex and we were able to put together different kind of technology and, I would say, just as a ship, with all the complexity of the operation for piping system, driving system, and we were to build on the sand, just on the open, we didn't have a shipyard. It is difficult for me to explain. Briefly I had [that] the whole thing eventually went in the water, it was floating, and eventually it had been operating and is now operating in the North Sea. Now that was just a very important project, but I could mention dozen and dozens, certainly practically all the oil rigs built in Australia and all the power stations and, I would say, probably 80 percent of transmission lines and bridges and tunnels and dams, you name them, big plants for steel, for aluminium, for iron ore, I mean, I know Australia more than the average Australian, moving from all sorts of places, from the North Gulf to south in Tasmania, to New Zealand, to all states; it is remarkable.
Yes, certainly, you have a tremendous sense of being proud and all that. To be able, eventually, to conceive initially a little company that ... hope will be able to survive doing a little job, because my aim at the time was just a little company and you can see how many things become much bigger that any dream if you allow the vision to move.
... if you allow any vision to move forward.
Well, you must be able to transfer your own enthusiasm, your own idea, to other people, because the management is really that — you are not doing the job yourself — you transfer your idea on the action of other people. This is, basically, it is called job manager [but] he doesn't do the job, he organises other people to do it. So if you could create that kind of atmosphere, that is a vision, and eventually you see the result and you realise that that result very often is greater, bigger, of what you had in the first case imagined.
Well, certainly the size of the company has dramatically increased in the last seven or eight years. And I must give credit to the intervention of the younger generation. I talk about the son of Salteri and the son [Paul], and my son, particularly, Marco. Of course the other brothers are in the system, but these two people, they have been able to widen the scope of the company. They have been more articulated than what the old generation was, with better contacts, possibly the fresh energy, and I'm pretty convinced that as we are now, the management of the system is in good hands. I hope I'm not wrong?
I don't know the number really, could be a dozen or so. We've been trying to get work [in] Kuwait, we're doing some work in Kuwait, we're doing some work in Israel, some of course in New Zealand is part of it, the rim of the Pacific, we have still now a workshop in the United States, in China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos. I've been there just recently. We've been working in New Guinea and l lost count of it but sometime I must read through our pamphlet in which area we are working, or where we are opening a new kind of frontline.
Now I'd like to switch and have you tell us a little bit about your involvement in the other great area of your life, apart from engineering, and that is the area of the arts. You have been a great patron of the arts in Australia. Could you tell me the story of how that began and why you got involved in promoting the arts in Australia?
Well, I think that if I had the formal education in the art world — talk about the basic training of artists, since I indulge in painting, particularly in doing sculpture — I am not surprised that I could be a reasonably good sculptor or painter. I could have made a living out of it.
As a kid first of all, my father was always attempting I think more for saving, I mean, if we do a calendar in the house, he would certainly try to copy from a postcard and try to do something and I would try to copy or sometime be pushed by him. Look, do that, if you can't do that, I do it. He would probably do it better than me, or vice versa. Since the very beginning, I would say, when I was probably a kid ... my father would certainly assist me. Subsequently at school, I talk about the Leaving, it was also another period when I had a good chance of painting. I think, then, when I went to concentration camp, there I had a much better chance of spending time with the artists of the area and I did some painting and I did some drawing and some figurative and landscape, quite interesting. I was trying to understand the life of the artists and I have been very much intrigued, fascinated, by the ability of these people to create from what appeared to be sort of an informal landscape, to create some element that was completely different. So the ability, the creativity, of artist to me has always been a very fascinating element. And this possibly has given to me the chance of continuing to draw and to paint whenever I could. And in the early '60s, there has been a breakthrough when I decided to open the competition for Transfield, which I called the Transfield Prize.
That gave me the chance of extending for about 13 years, the Transfield Prize, it was one of the leading art prizes in the country. By then Transfield was very well known, not only as a company but also as a promoter of art, and I made a lot of friends. I could understand a lot of national art, because the art prize was mainly Australian, but from all over the country, so I met most of Australia's great artists that eventually became a great name. We discovered some of the people that were unknown at the time: Fred Williams was one of those, for instance, where the critics, I think, made the choice. I was never in charge of the — no I couldn't be really — so that gave me the chance of meeting also curators, writers, critics and that is part of the ... that is for the gregarious, sometimes not necessarily compact of the art world that [I] eventually had to understand and deal further on with the Biennale [of Sydney].
Well, the biennale is definitely the premium international exhibition in Australia since 13 [years] and in the ninth edition, this year's has been the ninth edition, and I have asked them [on] the Board to give me some data. We have been able to exhibit up to ... works of 800 artists in this period, for 45 nations, an average of 80 artists every session. This has allowed not only artists coming from overseas but also for Australia, artists that were unknown, or be known to overseas.
Well, there is here a bit of a nostalgic relationship with Venice, because the first biennale in the world was Venice in 1884 , I think, and if you go and see at the Giardini Venice, these incredible theatrical performers and gradually we see them, we are creating something similar, these kind of relationships with international art world. Venice has been my inspiration and I go practically every year to have a look what happens and Australia now is much better known than what it was then, so we've, I think, not only broken down this isolation in Australia, but we have allowed [at] every session artists, critics, writers, visitors plus most of other performers in action in many parts of Sydney [to become] well-known all over the world. This is certainly a great contributing element to the art of Australia for the rest of the world.
Well, certainly, art is one aspect of the culture that makes alive, makes alive the tissue of a community to vibrate and you must have in a community interest in that kind of layer of activity, to make life interesting and possible. There are many aspects of course of the arts and I just concentrating on the visual aspects.
Well, certainly less, I'm not a great acknowledger of the theatrical play or literature or music, even if I have in the family a lot of addicts in this area, since I like them. But my particular inclination is toward the visual and that also has aspect — a sideline is architecture, for instance. Another one I also like to consider as a sort of by-product is design. I have been interested in design, part of the council [Australia Council of the Arts] activity in Australia, but that is another aspect of living, there is so much interest. And you can see what happened in Australia, the change of attitude, the change of capacity of what happens here in the last 40 years. The basic tremendous change in the tissue in the Australian community is that government institutions have given support to the art and the artists.
Apart from your role as an engineering entrepreneur, you've made another very great contribution to Australian life while you've been living here and that is in the area of the arts, the visual arts, particularly. Can you tell us why you got involved in that, why you think it’s important to the country and what you actually have done?
Art is also a good business ... and even in my office we have plenty of paintings. It is good for the staff, it is good for the executive, it is good for the customer. But for the artist themself [it] is a creative element in the humankind. I mean, humans have got this different capacity compared with those other living creatures, this creativity. And the history of mankind has just been pinpointed by the development of the art in every community. I have been very fortunate to have contacts in Italy first, and eventually here, much greater, I would say, but probably it is an instinct that come back — could be from the Italian type of generation or the Renaissance — of the history of, particularly Italy, that so much has contributed to art in the world and I have been in a way a sort of little messenger, a little ambassador for Australia. So I've been extremely genuine, interested and proud, and having tremendous pleasure myself in fostering the art during my career in engineering through the Transfield Prize and the biennale.
Well, certainly it is the tissue in the community that is gradually evolved and developed and Australia has this millennium of art, even primitive, for the Aboriginal [culture] we talk about 40,000 years and now, gradually, even in one of the latest exhibitions in Venice, through the Australian pavilion, that I had something to do with at that time, has been also original work by Aboriginal [artists] — very, very well received in Europe. So Australia is known now through this kind of medium that were not possible until probably a few years ago.
Well, I had the good luck, let's put it that way, of suggesting the construction of the pavilion in Venice. It probably has been the last chance for any nation to have a pavilion in Venice, so Australia has been gradually acknowledged as one of the last pavilion and I don't think anyone else will start. With the pavilion that I had to justify as only temporary and eventually they told me that if you succeed in getting a temporary pavilion in Italy, anything that is temporary becomes permanent. And [the] pavilion ... that now is a great piece of Australian architecture being designed by local architect, displays every two years works of leading artists, and Australians by such are better known overseas.
Now the biennale that you have supported over the years is also an important part of Australian art life. What do you think is the particular contribution that the biennale has made and are you ... what' s been your connection with it?
In Australia it is a focus for the presence here of international artists and also there is the possibility of showing Australian artists to the rest of the world. So it is a tremendous amount of possibility of this contact, of this isolated continent, which is Australia. And the Australian art in the last 30 years, I would say, has developed to a tremendous space, and not only in visual art but also in ballet, in play, in music, in craftsmen, and now Australia is also expected to make some money out of the art. That is just incredible, in addition to the balance of payment to the country.
Well they are doing, they are doing, I could see, certainly we were pioneers. Transfield has been pioneer in this area but I could see also that other company are doing that and you would be surprised that in many boardroom, gradually, a very traditional type of painting that you were seeing exhibited, cows, pastures, etc, modern architecture ...
... the Queen, whatever, now things are moving tremendously. The maturity of Australian art in the world and I very well recognise that you could see, even reading a magazine in Europe, in America and in Asia, Australia is very well-respected
Oh definitely, and taking an example of some Italian company that have been a promoter of art, more or less this kind of patronage, it was traditional of Italian signori in the Renaissance. Now Australians are realising that is an important message, I mean, no doubt about that, the very well-recognised presence of Transfield is also given to the role played by the company in promoting art and assisting in many aspects visual arts in the country.
It is certainly tempting ... [laughing] ... I am fascinating ... literally fascinated by the artists and the art world. The creativity that come from that part of mankind is an incredible element of inspiration and in reality if you see other aspects — it could be science, technology — the art, in a way, is more easily touchable, you could feel the vibrating in immediately, instinctively so, from that point of view, that aspect of creativity of humankind is absolutely fantastic.
You have this great respect for discipline which comes from your military training and the way that you were brought up by your father, and yet you also have this great respect for the freedom of the spirit through creativity. Do you see any kind of tension between these two aspects of life that you admire?
Definitely, there is opposite ends. I think that wherever there is too much regulation, too much restriction, too much guidance, you can't imagine that creativity is possible to be allowed. So there is that kind of drama and I would say that the large creative spirit is ... [above] all control. So it is a fact, it could be probably a mystery, a mystery of life. In reality, I don't think that you could put the two things together — an artist must be totally free, sometime it must be rebellious, that's art.
In your own life, you've actually rather liked to control things. You liked to be your own boss, you liked to be in charge. Do you think this is why you've preferred to pursue a life in engineering and a life as an entrepreneur than the life of an artist, that also beckoned you?
I don't think that I am an artist, otherwise I should not become an engineer. I could see the dramatic opposite end of the system but, between the two, I am more keen toward the science and technology than I'm not toward to the art but, you never know, I could have probably started in a different direction, you never know.
So you've dedicated your life really to the building of Transfield. In making those sorts of decisions about which way your life would go, what has been your value system? How have you worked out that priority?
It's really hard to make a quick answer here. Sometime you don't have priority. I think you move by instinct, I don't think there are rules. I believe more in feeling than in regulation. I mean, I have to be compelled to do anything, particularly after the second period of my life. I felt almost sort of destiny, hanging on me, in moving in one direction, sometime even without seeing the end, and even now at my age, while I should be looking back, I'm still ... I'm certain ... I could make more contribution today if I could try to add to what I have done and I'm in contrast occasionally with my children, particularly, I can't give them much instruction or guidance to them because they pretend that they know more than me.
They can't believe me, any more.
I beg your pardon?
Did you ever feel that you neglected your family for the sake of the company? Did you ever feel that you were giving so much to the building of the company that sometimes your conscience twinged and you wondered if you were giving enough to the family?
Well, in looking to, retrospectively and all that, I'm sure that I've done it. I've done not enough for the family, probably, concentrating on the type of practical aspect of my everyday commitment. I should have given more attention but, if I see the result altogether, I can't complain. I mean, from the family side, my wife is still the same wife, that's already an advantage, I could see (I've found friends with the third marriage as I saw just a few weeks ago) and my children, they still respect me, they still work with me and for me and for them, incidentally. I can see the unity of the family pretty strong and, again, if I see comparison so much difference in many area, so that I think that altogether the result is pretty satisfactory.
No, no, no, quite frankly and I think that, in a way, this is the system of education, that, more from me but from [my] wife, has brought this kind of result. It means they not only could have chosen all type of other activities and they would be happy possibly to inherit the wealth that certainly they have, but the fact that they are not only working in the company, but they are very keen, occasionally, I could see, dramatically close to the system, I could see that I have been very lucky for this kind of a result.
In looking back at your life and the way you have lived it, do you see any particular theme or pattern, any idea that you have learned from the way that you have lived your life, that you can apply and that makes sense as a principle of living? For example, you have talked a little bit about the principle of change and movement, that things shouldn't be static, that they should be allowed to grow. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about that philosophy, of action and taking opportunities, could you tell us a little bit about that?
Well, certainly the aspiration of manager or business people is the continuity of what they are doing, and they would like all the time to create or to find the rules to ensure that kind of thing. In reality, we are confronted with a constant stream of changes and this dynamic of changes, that we see in the wider world around us, is the element that [is] really characterising everyday living. It is in this kind of change that I have been always, all the time, trying to get the right direction. By chance I find, you find the right ... I'm probably the result of these chaotic disturbance around me, that I'm where I am. If I didn't, if I was not prepared to take the opportunity to every corner, as I've done, then probably the result would have been completely different. So this dynamic of change that has been, at least, the constant around us, is the element that you should not be surprised that it is, and we should continue to maintain that kind of being prepared for the changes, and utilise the changes that come.
When you were taken prisoner of war, you described your captives as very civilised and it didn't seem to me that you were entirely admiring of that, that there is an element of you that perhaps feels a little critical of a totally civilised approach to life. Was I right in suspecting that you think that in some ways, very, very formally civilised behaviour is not the way to go?
Well the reality, I think, that confrontation between tribes is far to be civilisation — possibly the result of this kind of confrontation that civilisation is developed around the millennium or centuries. I have been surprised by civilisation and civility of the people that I met, I told you, even in the battling, particular when we were very close to the same danger. It is incredible how the people of different origin confront the same kind of odds, they become rather friendly. And the first contact I had with enemy forces in North Africa, that we could look in the face of each other, as if we were friendly, almost subject to the same destiny.
In living out your life, what do you think has been your major personal strengths that you've brought to life that were perhaps special, or particularly well developed in you, that have stood you in good stead?
Well, I don't think that I had any special characteristics that has emerged all during these years. I still think that the result has been mainly a problematic or statistical behaviour of event from which I am what I am, what is the result of what I have done. I have not really been able to plan every detail. As a matter of fact, while I insist as a manager for the planning for everyone, in reality I found out that the great happening are just not unplanned and even when I came to Australia, I didn't have any plan, nor I knew where I would come. In reality, the philosophy that has pushed me constantly, and I tried to suggest it to other people, if you do properly today what you are doing, this is the best gift for success for tomorrow.
To be self-critical. Oh yes, of course. I'm certainly impulsive, I don't have much patience, I do not dedicate myself completely to what I am doing now, I'm capable of starting many things not finished. While I pretend to people that I do things in order, I do in tremendous disorder. I live in chaotic surrounding in my workshop or my desk. I like beautiful things, not necessarily in a particular type of order. I'm in love with mechanics, with science, with technology, and I'm in love with art, that's completely opposite. I'm a little bit of a contrasting — a happy contrast if I might say so.
If we like or not, the standard of living we are enjoying today is mainly the result of science and technology. The standard of living of mankind, particularly the last 200 years, we have today goods that kings ... ordinary man could not have, would have, suspected. Probably the kings of 200 years ago, didn't have what ordinary man has today and all that is due to the capacity of science and technology. This is changing the world and we are in a competitive world and there are problem and the problem is that we give certain emphasis in area, not to others. Australia particularly must chase some way of becoming more effective, more competitive and we are complaining that lack of technology or scientific preparation in the school for the generation to come. Unfortunately, I must say that we are too many lawyers, too many regulations, too many restrictions that are preventing things to happen. I didn't know, for instance, that we have in school today more law students than all the numbers of solicitors that are existing in the nation. Just unbelievable. Now we should try to balance the system. We need people to take less soft option and remind them that we are living in a competitive world. People around us are doing much better, much faster, the fact that Australia — in 19 ... at the beginning of this century, I talk about 1900 — was the first standard of living in the world today; today is the fourteenth. So we are slipping, we are still in very good condition, if you consider at least 300 or 400 nations we are compared with, but we are surrounded by very competitive forces and Australian needs to realise that, to wake up to reality.
Certainly, the question that there is no limitation of what you can spend is a tremendous amount of freedom. I mean, I don't use money as I could possibly do. I don't count the things I could buy, but in theory, I like little things. Recently we were overseas and I bought a dozen of very few ... watches, just toys, little things like that. They are expensive and they are extravagant but just little toys that make life much easier.
Well, certainly you could be uneasy, but you can't do a thing about it, personally. Unfortunately, there is this kind of gradient of wealth all over the world, but if you just distribute all the money you have to everybody, the balance will be that everybody will be miserable. So that is not a problem. Certainly it is essential to maintain a very compassionate attitude in the community where you are living and I think, from that point of view, Australia is in a very good position — we are not looking to beggars on the street, at least as yet, I hope not. We are certainly lucky as a community with a big high standard of living compared with the population around us, particularly on the low level, and if we see all over the world a lot of misery that, I would say, is more due to the government institution than to the technological era in which we are living.
You want to talk about the Australian identity ... Well, first of all, what is my identity, if I am an Australian? I have been here now for 42 years and I don't feel Australian. Possibly my children, possibly the second or the third generation, they feel it, but this kind of ethnic — as I am more or less — they have one foot here, one foot somewhere else, they don't know. Sometime if I go back to Italy, I don't have much relative left, very few friends if any, and things are changing more rapidly there than here. So you feel a bit isolated even here, but the for the Australians, identity, they have been struggling for quite a while, even after 200 years to find their own identity. They haven't found yet.
Well, honestly, I don't think I'm an Australian. Even if I have been living here.
Well, the fact that you stay here, you belong here, you will be prepared to work here for the benefit of this country should be sufficient element to be defined Australian. But there are certain root links that are still connected, still alive, every time I go overseas, particularly if I go to Italy. I could see that the roots are moving and are growing, so it is a question of natural instinct, I would say. I don't believe that you could become overnight Australian. Certainly, the more you are here, the more you understand the people, the more you make friendly with your surrounding, and the benefit you are getting through this life here automatically — that will officially define you as Australian. But the fact remain for this people coming from overseas, they stay here for a certain period of time, they still have this remarkable, indestructible element of contacts with the rest of the world. And sooner or later, I think that people should realise that it is not to be necessarily a citizen of this land, they should be a citizen of a much wider land, why not a citizen of the world, for instance? What's happening in Europe and other — we talk about the European community — these people are gradually become citizens of a much greater number of nations. I'm not surprised that tomorrow this tribe, this white tribe of Australia, could become part of a tribe that is part of a much larger, for instance, could be New Zealand and Australia to start with. You have to think about that.
Well, certainly Australia must justify first of all this proportionate ratio between the inhabitants and land, first. That means that the population here must grow at a much faster rate. Second factor is that we are seen as a sort of fragment of the old colonial empire. We should now gradually build more and more links with this part of the world. Sooner or later, 200 years of Australian history will fade against the future and we should more and more feel as if we are part — and vice versa, these people should feel that Australia is part of that world of the Pacific. This I think is an important, very important, aspect of the Australian today, what they look at.
Well it could be a symbolic element. Now the debate is still on and I'm one of the Australian Republican Movement founder. I believe that Australia, for the quest of self-respect, should show symbolic and naturally that they could relinquish contacts with the old world. I talk about the Queen and the monarchy and show that we could live on our own without being controlled, without these long links still existing. I'm not ... in the argument of the Constitution, I will leave the philosophers and law-makers, but from the instinctive point of view, I think Australia will gain tremendously internal morale and this internal respect and external relationship with the rest of the Pacific, if we could at least before the end of 2000, 2001, we become a republic. It is a great symbolic step and I could see that the percentage of the people being already persuaded is increasingly radically. By the 2000, I think that the conviction of Australia will be totally for a republic.
No, I don't think so. Not only because I have so many already existing link in Australia, but also the presence of my family here. I can't conceive going back as the Chinese do — they want to go back to their homeland to die — no I think that from that point of view then I should remain, or should become Australian.
It is a very important question, but so far as I am concerned, that's my end. I don't believe in the world of ... the other world. Since I didn't possibly operate properly here, I don't expect that I'll suffer the other side of the world. Unfortunately it is part of the natural way of living, living creature, they stop. They live in this part of the great tree of mankind, of the natural world, so I think that is essential. And I would say, that I am not surprised, I have been already confronted with death a few times in my life and I'll be just facing, without any kind or terror or fear, that will just be it, as far as I am concerned, will be the end of it.
Certainly I will leave my wife, she will survive me, no doubt about that. And the children. Apart [from] the children, my contribution to this continent, from that point of view, I think is more than adequate. My contribution to the development of the continent, so far as engineering, construction, in all sort of thousands of aspects of projects. Or initiatives, by contribution to the appreciation of the arts in the community, certainly will be lasting, particularly for the biennale, for my role in art prizes, initially. For the Gunnery [studios for artists], for the establishment of the Gunnery and for my presence in many institutions that I have been able to serve in one way or another. I think that I have been enjoying tremendously, and I enjoy tremendously being part of it, that live part, more alive than every day, I would say, routine work. Art to me is that kind of inspirational aspect of life that makes easy to forget failure, and you could relax.
Well, as I have, I'm convinced I received from my parents, directly and indirectly, willing or not, that type of character that has made me. Similarly, I think that my children, I could recognise they have gained from me and my wife that attitude to work, to make a conclusion, to be useful member of the community for years to come; this to me would probably be the biggest satisfaction that I could have achieved.
Well, first, I would say in doing properly what you are doing. I mean, your example, is already a greater element for your children, for your family, I talk about that. The conclusion, the results of your work, is already in itself a demonstration of the fact of the contribution that you are making and this already is a good type of inspiration for your children. From that point of view, I could see that my successes, they could see the facts, the intentions and I can't blame away from that point of view.
In thinking about your grandchildren, do you have any fears or worries about the kind of world that they are going to inherit? What kind of a world do you think your grandchildren are going to come into?
Well, to forecast the future has been always a very great commitment, problem. Certainly the future for the children will not be easier. Things are getting more complicated but always the best people will gain, the best effort will always be rewarded. No question that you are just left behind if anything could happen, so provided these people be moved by the will to succeed, be aggressive (you might say), in whatever they are doing in, the attitude to face whatever adversity or otherwise with heart and try to win the battles. I think that this is the type of elements that I wish them to do. I got five boys and one girl, that's six altogether, all in good health, I do hope that they will take notice of what their grandfather has been doing.
Going back to your own childhood and remembering how that was, your own father's behaviour had a great influence on you. Could you describe to me in what way that worked, and what he was like as a man and how that affected you?
Well my father was a very simple man [but] probably was more complicated than I would imagine at the time. He had certainly a complex life, as I mentioned, he was an adopted child and he had to win [over] many adversity. He was a self-made man with elementary school. He succeeded only as his peers, at that time, I still remember he was a wealthy man, he was a very well articulated man with his own very tough character. We were educated with stiffness, with the modern kind of discipline — I would even go to dictatorial attitude. He might not have realised that that was the case of a dictator behaviour, but I am very grateful to him for the guidance he has given to me. I learned from the very, very beginning, because he was a good tradesman, the basics of what was my type of, say, the job, if I might put it that way, and I've, most, the greatest memory of his presence in my life.
Well, my mother possibly had an education of the same level, possibly less. My mother was a simple woman of a country, even if they were proprietors, but still of country style. My mother was certainly an example of ... as working in the house, we didn't have any help, we had a very primitive type of arrangement, we certainly didn't buy many goods. She was great woman, not showing very much affection. We didn't felt very much affection from the parents, quite frankly.
Well certainly the period I would say from [the ages of] six, seven, 10, 12, it could have been probably when I spent time with my father and on occasion with my grandfather as a little child, more of less. Working with him, for instance, when my father, he could have been probably young, I suppose, and he was building his own house and yet he built all the hinges and locks and padlocks whatever himself, because normally he was doing many things himself and we were in Gioia del Colle in the shop of my grandfather; normally I was helping my father at night-time.
Oh, just an old blacksmiths — of course, during the day, he would look after the horses or whatever, implement of the country, but that was typical because there were no electricity, so everything was done by hand, all the machines, everything all just very primitive. So I could make the holes on the hinges or whatever, but I remember one evening I was holding the kerosene lamp and my father was working. Of course I had to hold the kerosene lamp near the anvil and in no time there was darkness. I had dropped the kerosene lamp, I couldn't believe it, I was terrified — what my father ... would have done to me [but] he didn't touch me, I was surprised. I was expecting my father would beat me. That kind of a thing as a child helping my father, certainly was an experience. I was doing it subsequently when he was coming home from work, helping him, but that particular episode to me was a touching episode.
As I said to you, he understood that I was tired probably, the lamp didn't burn altogether, the kerosene could have been broken down into a bigger fire, whatever, but that was a typical little episode that touched me. In the future I was helping my father or even my grandfather, even sparks near the anvil were beating the hot iron or whatever, but the fact that the working with these people, helping them, I could learn a little detail of working, artisan, craftsmanship, that eventually is still in my body. Even now I could go back to my little experience. If my father was working, for instance, I had to be very careful, to be attentive, to give to him the tools at the right time or whatever, I had to more or less forecast when he wanted them. That was the typical attitude of my father — pretending that I knew what he wanted, you follow, little details that in a way would shape a childhood. You understand?
Oh yes, no doubt about that. I mean, my father would not hit me with the hammer, but certainly with the hand of the hammer. He would just, gently, I could feel that it was a good thing to take into account that I try to be very careful. Little things like that, eventually, there was the feeling of being very careful, attentive to the work I was doing. I suppose that as a child, these little episodes must have created in me certain attitudes that are still prevalent in me.
To do things at the proper time, to be properly what you are doing now, that eventually is my philosophy. I tell to my people what are the secrets of success, and still I say to them even now, that the secret of success is that you do properly what you are doing now.
Well, when you go into the profession of engineering you have a background of knowledge, technicalities, etc, but certainly even in my type of casual, chaotic, type of succession of event, still we try to muster these succession of event to make sure that you stay in program. You try to build up a schedule, and as much as we can do this kind of scheduling, programming, there are gigantic differences anyhow, that means that whatever careful care you put into preparing or doing something, it is still not enough. So the tendency ... when we took to the small details of any projects, small or big, it is incredible how you should be extremely careful in every little sequence, because even if you do anything properly, it is likely to be different anyhow. That means you cannot forecast eventually the time, the completion and the finality of the job. We talk about particularly profitability or otherwise, that eventually determines the success of any big project. Then you concede that, notwithstanding the care in every detail, you aren't sure that eventually the final result will be the same one, or the good one.
Well you see, the sealing of the tunnel, that certainly is a great masterpiece of engineering and even there, first of all, you've got to have the preparatory period, which you must be able to get the consensus of all the environmental, politicians, fundamental financial structures. But even if you have all these type of complex put in place, now is to build it and make sure that by the time you reach the finality that the job is done, and works and becomes a success, and particularly if you didn't lose money, because eventually you could have made a masterpiece of engineering but you personally could go bankrupt. How many cases there have been of great works being done and the builder or sculptor eventually had to collapse before the end.
Although you did tell us about the oil rig which you built that lost money, but you were still so proud of the engineering, and that's an interesting one for you, isn't it. Which is more important to you — in the end you are proud of the engineering, aren't you?
Even this oil rig, certainly a great job, if you think that on the magnitude of self-propelled or sort of double submarine — and we built because BHP, the great Australian company, told me ‘look, you probably much better than we can, because we already have enough problem with this kind of project’ and certainly I underevaluated the problem because the project eventually became a great success from the engineering point of view. But at the time we lost about three million [dollars] but the very reason why — because the industrial guru decided that the toilets had to go a couple of hundred yards away from the oil rig instead of what I saw done somewhere else, not in Australia, where all the facilities I talk about were just on the same level of the construction site. That kind of constant movement of ants up and down, of the labour, we just ruined the whole project. Little details like that are very important, could just make or break the system.
I don't think that children really realise all this kind of thing. It is for that reason ... essential that in the family structure the children should be kept at bay by the family — that is very important that there is a controlling authority in the system. You could just shape the child in that period, to me is very essential to realise that what I am is what I was made at that period.
You believe very much in the idea of authority being a controlling authority. Does that extend right through your life to all aspects of it, where you feel that the exercise of authority must be very firm, strong and hierarchical?
Well, certainly there is a balance of authority, a balance of freedom, that more and more as you grow, you realise that there must be a balance between the two. You could have some extreme rigidity for which you could curb and tutor, and you curb creativity, but certainly in the period of formation you could make a saint of somebody if you put them in a cemetery ... in a seminary, sorry ...
... almost the same, or if you put them in a sort of military academy, you could shape the same man in different ways, it depends very much what you make out of it. I firmly believe that it depends on the education, the constriction, the limitation, how you shape people, irrespective of their own personality that definitely are different. You, you cannot invent the personality, it still remains in the background, but certainly it is very essential that in a community of family or society, there must be some type of guidance and I'm not surprised that if you learn the cult-ic type of development that we see in certain cases today in many parts of mankind, you can't be very surprised of the results.
You were firmly under your father's authority and control in the home, but when you went and joined the railways very rapidly you were put in authority yourself. How did you find that transition from being the boy, who as far as his father was concerned could decide nothing for himself, to being someone who was actually in charge, in a position of authority?
Well certainly there are different kind of latitude, a different kind of freedom, different kind of authorities, but there is a pride in the father successfully and in the spirit of development and other episodes. Eventually you get freedom, even in different kinds of surroundings and discipline. In reality, even if you are a railway station master you have a certain kind of discipline, you know what you are supposed to do. At least you know exactly. Sometime, depending at least in the case of my father, sometimes I couldn't forecast what kind of discipline is happening to me this afternoon or tomorrow. That was typical ... [interruption] ...
When you came into a position quite young as station master and you had to exercise authority, having up to that stage being very much under your father's authority, how did you get on with that? Did you have any difficulty making that transition?
I certainly was not in a position of exercising much authority. In the beginning I had to learn, let's face it, you get in new surroundings, a new environment, and you have to learn the question of traffic, train signal, and so in the very beginning is always to learn and it is only the process of learning and gradually you build up enough experience to eventually build up authority. I don't think the authority comes immediately ...
Well, one year and a half, that was just enough for me. Yes, I took the corresponding segment of controlling, having done the corresponding examination. I have to learn and eventually I had some authority, but not very great authority, it was just beginning. Even a station master, a young station master, you had this special period of exercise during the 24 hours but, as I said, it was a good way of learning with sufficient knowledge at the corresponding authority.
Well, it was important, because I was already one of the top men, young as I was, in the little community of Trebisacce. That is a place in south Calabria, because I was mixing with the priests, mixing with the mayor or chief chemist. I was just part of the important people, so you build together connections and of course with the senior station master and becoming a bit of a teacher, because I was always in that period, and subsequently, I've been always trying to exploit what I knew already and I was teaching to the son and to the daughter, of all the station masters, some sort of maths and physics, so there was always some giving and obtaining relationship. This was very important, very important, the period of my life in a very short time ...
First ‘annexion’ ... first network or connection.
Well, certainly is interesting to me, even this faith at this sort of time, and certainly is a very interesting period of my life, being respected. I would say, you mix with these important people, you become part of the elite in the little town, that is quite an important experience for me.
As part of the community ... I was part of the community, mind that, there was a period when fascism was in full power and I was made chief of the club of the railway employees, which means I had to look after the welfare of these people [...] it was a type of club that keep all the people together in the railway. In that period it was important for me, an experience to meet and supervise more or less the welfare of these people.
Well, always to look after the employees, and therefore it was part of — I didn't realise at the time — it was part of the policy of the fascists, but certainly I was in charge of that kind of little club, quite an interesting experience.
Fantastic, it is always good to be in charge, no doubt about that, it is always a good feeling.
So,. the next thing you did after the experience on the railway was to go to the military academy. Now this interest that you have always had in the relationship between authority and discipline was probably given really its first systematic direction when you went to the military academy?
It looks that you are just almost turning the page to a new chapter and [coughs] you do a bit, what in Latin called tabula rasa, a complete new clean sheet. And to me, it was a new adventure, a new experience, a new opening in your life. What would have been subsequent, I didn't realise it at the time ...
Franco, have a good cough and start the military academy story again because it'll be easier for Frank to cut that out. Yes, just start at the military academy. I'm a bit gravelly this morning too ... I thought you'd prefer that, am I right ...
The themes of discipline and authority had been very important ones throughout your childhood but when you went to the military academy, you actually encountered ideas of authority and discipline in a very systematic form. Could you tell us about your time there and what you learned from that experience?
Well, certainly in a military academy, I had to realise pretty quickly that the kind of discipline was pretty tough, rigid but also well-balanced. At least I knew in what respect in every day and every hour of the day so it was not sort of an unpleasant experience, almost a welcome, because it was already part of my mentality. I could see that was essentially ... gradually as I grew up in the four years of that period and eventually in war, subsequently, I felt that it was just a natural sequence of events. To me it just was natural for that kind of, let's call, profession. The importance of discipline was absolutely a necessity. So I'm not surprised ... of course it was a gradual ... in the beginning it could be a bit hard of course, because you have to almost to be, ill-treated to facing the unknown that sometimes is discipline and you have to more or less react in a positive, conscientious, and type of accept the mentality as discipline. Once you get to the kind of form of momentum automatically you show them that that's the way to do it.
When we say ill-treatment, is the kind of toughness. I mean, since the very beginning of the day, you have to get up at that time, irrespective of temperature, irrespective of your health conditions, you had to just be at that time, to do what you are told to do; that is the kind of discipline that is typical of the institution, of a military institution. I don't see anything wrong about that and the people are supposed to be prepared to this kind of sacrifices. As a matter of fact, even today, if I could see that somebody will take the opportunity of, say, bad weather and not go to work and vice versa, the other fellow, because is bad weather, and must feel his duty, he will do that with enthusiasm, you could see the same kind of event on different kind of personality or different kind of mental habit — automatically you see the different kind of results.
Well, certainly they don't speak normally of initiatives. I would say that the Military should not be given too much initiative, they should be told to do something and shut up. Basically even when I was in war and really in a position of commander of that particular unit, I did not know very much beside that particular unit. And doubtless the secret, I think, of the echelon in a great organisation that people should supposed to know what is within their kingdom without going outside and that's the only way of building constructive organism. If somebody goes outside their own sphere there will be unavoidable chaos, so I could understand as in the military institution in the mentality of soldiers, they should be doing what they are told and try to avoid to become critical.
Well, I was in a way fortunate to be able to stay very close to Mussolini as well as Hitler and also King [Victor] Emmanuel [III]. There was a period in 19 ... I think 1939, it was 1939, when Europe was already more or less in, a sort of, very spirited atmosphere that Germany subsequently declared war and eventually Italy was drawn in the war, wheeling, dealing. And I was there in Rome because we had to be on parade as part of our presence as a military academy. And in that couple of days I was close to the circle, the inner circle, of Hitler, Mussolini and the King, and I was very close and to me they looked just as puppets, all of them, quite frankly, particularly Hitler. He had this face that looked pretty drunk to me but that was part of the unreal atmosphere that eventually, as time went by, I was close to this kind of unreality of the history and what I could talk about, or could think about, Mussolini is beside what I could even conceive that I could talk about him or think about him. Certainly we were all enthusiastic about his presence in Italy. Let's face it — we were part of the system and I had a lot of admiration for Mussolini.
Of course if you see the sequence of events, that you consider all the great type of epic of war, then you could see now with a different kind of eyes, a different kind of experience, but put in that period when I was there, soon after military academy and close to the sequence, I didn't have any critical eyes about what was going on. It looked to me that it just was normal. That's strange. This kind of unreal world that I built artificially and still are there and could see me as part of the world, or in many parts of history.
No, I don't think that it was my job, no I don't think so. I didn't feel that — at that time, I was utterly convinced that I had to do what I was told to do. That was part of my type of activity to go into war ... was part of the system which I was operating. It is strange that this could appear today even to me, but the fact that I was prepared for that kind of sequence of event and the concept of criticising ... even if there could be of course, every day, a motive of being critical, certain happening, but on the total I was convinced that that was the way to do it.
Isn't there something of a danger in a system that relies on authority and discipline — aspects of life which you admire and methods that you see value in — is there not a danger in that does lead to the suspension of criticism of authority and if that authority isn't a good force, it has much less restricted power?
No, no doubt looking inside of the experience you develop in different kind of surroundings, might not be a pretty ... almost ridiculous, this kind of a system, no doubt about that, and you could build up a sort of monumental, monumental castle that can't stand up, but that reality of conclusion that if you start to assert a kind of principle, you can't be surprised of that kind of system.
The system sent you off to war in North Africa. Now out of this next chapter of active service what, looking back, do you feel were the really important things that you learnt that stayed with you for the rest of your life?
Well, until I was still in the war, or even subsequently in concentration camp irrespective of the events, rather dramatic, that were part of my experience, I was still part of the same system and I would say that even, in concentration camp, I didn't change dramatically or to any extent my mentality — even when there was a question of deciding in concentration camp if you were a fascist or not a fascist. I had to make up my mind that I was a military and such, as an officer, so my type of allegiance was to the king, not Mussolini, so therefore at that time there was a some division even of officers in the concentration camp. And I had to opt for the King, because I had sworn already, given allegiance, to the King, so I had maintain the kind of mentality that was part of the military academy education — so not only political issues but talk about the military academy and war and the kind of loyalty to the system that you had already asked to serve. It was only much later when you started getting some freedom of operation — I am talking about when I came back to Italy — that you started to get some critical analysis of succession of events.
Yes, yes I had to.
Well, I labelled myself as against fascism.
Against fascism, of course. As a matter of fact, in India, there were camps for the fascists and camps for the people not fascists. So you had to become anti-fascist. At that time there was no question of being black or white, you could have half-colour, so you must make up your mind what you want to be even if sometime you must have certain kind of ambiguity. But at that time clearly I had to decide and I was convinced that my position was clearly on the side of the King, not the side of Mussolini.
No, no, no difficulty, even if I knew that this kind of a drama was typical of Italy at that time, when you had to give allegiance to two people — that eventually they separated. That was a type of little drama, big drama, that I suppose must have had a lot of problem with many Italians, I am pretty sure about that.
Well, the question of fascism and so [on] are of type of 'isms' you could see characterised all over the world and would be communism, and you could have so many other ‘isms’ of all kinds. Unfortunately these kind of movement that are brought to the extreme could become extremely dangerous for mankind, this extremism, that we have already enough of those kind of moments in the history of mankind, and unfortunately it just is a disease and you can be affected — or even you be a sufferer unless you find the right atmosphere, the right kind of doctor, who will cure you, you can be sick forever.
So ... my political pragmatism is still to maintain certain kinds of civility for which you need a certain amount of discipline, no doubt about that. You need a certain kind of order because I think that if you create or you have a complex that is in disorder you have only the destruction of the system. I don't see any system that could prevail or survive unless there is a certain kind of order, so the kind of order that could be more or less closer to disciplinarian mentality, I could see that there is a necessity — we can't do unfortunately without it.
Well, especially the episode in that brief period of war, compelling sequence of event, even for a short period because that was June 1941, sorry, November [then January 1942, so it was a very short period and certainly the actual battle only concentrated in a few days. I mean, the kind of mobility of forces and the dimension of the tiers of operation is such that you lose the sense of realities. Certainly, one of the episodes where we had the first people blown up by landmines, that was the first contact with the actual event ... was still quiet on the front, and we had the general coming to make a speech for the funeral — that was the period when I had to decide who was going to prime the mine, it was quite a delicate operation, and I then decided that only officers had to be in charge of this very critical operation. That was my first encounter with the tragedy of the war.
Well, even the episode itself, you didn't see much of the men themselves, because they all were dismembered in a little ... you didn't see very much detail but this was my first contacts with the drama of the war. It was subsequently, when there was the actual battles in the Sidi Omar or the Sidi Barani, when all these tanks came on the perimeter of the stronghold and I could see people dead here and there and blood all over the place, and that was still part of, almost as, a drama for which I was an actor, but didn't give much importance, but subsequently when I saw heaps of corpses, and these heaps of corpses had to be showered with the petrol and eventually to put fire on these kinds of corpses, that I could realise the gravity of the situation, but that part of the drama during the war, was part of the war, very brief episodes.
Well, quite strangely, I felt that all this was part of the war. It didn't really stop me to think about the war as part of the essential act of drama of mankind, this assertion of virility. I felt that it was just a part of the war altogether, even the study in the theoretical study of wars during the four years at the military academy and this kind of losses — not that we talked about losses — without going into much importance, the way the losses, the how the losses, who were the losses, to me this was a little episode of that kind of thing, of the theoretical that we had already learned, so it didn't really change dramatically what I had already in mind.
Well, I can't change dramatically, the fact remains that history cannot change, there could be changes in a matter of a few years or a few thousand of years. I mean, the history of mankind still remains the same. We are certainly in a period of relative stability in the relationship between nations, even if there are here and there, you could hear battles, for which we don't know much details, but still the drama is there. I think we should be foolish to think that now we are in a period of eternal peace and stability. I think that the people should realise that they have to be prepared.
Well, personally, even during the actual battles on the perimeter ... I was lucky not to be hit, was only subsequently in the second stage that I was hit, most likely by a machine-gun, and I still have a bullet in my body. I was very lucky, no doubt about that, probably I have a few episodes of good luck in my life and that was certainly one of those.
It's still in my left part of my shoulder blade.
As I am sitting here.
Well, that should have been done even then but of course in the complexity of the military operation after the first, fourth, night or so when I was with the German auto ambulance, after a while the bodies started getting on operation again, and the actual wound on the right part of the body was more or less, say, recovering, there was no urgency; the thing had been left there ever since.
Most likely, yes.
Well, whatever you could consider the enemy, or friend, we talk about the question of the impact of people, that you have to remove certain obstacles to go somewhere else, so the question of enemy, I think is an artificial definition. It is only something that is preventing you to go somewhere else. Once you get that particular kind of objective, that kind of obstacle doesn't exist, so the enemy doesn't exist anymore.
Well, certainly the concept of creating hate is a necessary ammunition, I'm pretty sure about that. I mean, you cannot make war against a friend, so there must be a sort of persuasion or brainwashing of the system, and I still remember at that time Mussolini was talking about Dio stramaledica l'inglesi, that God should punish, whatever, the British but automatically the chiefs must create that atmosphere of hate, otherwise I don't think he could be sure of the results.
Well, as a matter of fact, now that I have been living with them for more than half of my life, I think that they are certainly the most civilised crowd — unfortunately I think they are too much civilised ...
Because I consider that civilisation at long range is a self-destructive element ... I mean, the more civilised you are, you ... more lean to be destroyed by somebody else and you could see that great civilisations of the past eventually ... eventually leave room for somebody else less civilised and more aggressive. This is the reality.
No doubt. I mean civilisation, you see the kind of ups and downs, what the great Italian historian Vico talked about cycle of success and failure, and you could just watch the civilisation go for a thousand years, just that. Great civilisations collapse to most aggressive, uncivilised ... savages ... [interruption] ...
So if you think that civilisation must always fall to savagery, how do you translate that into your personal life, into your personal actions, how do you work out how you're going to live in relation to these principles?
Well, I am just an episode in a type of civilisation, I belong to a small little episode of a system. There is no question that certainly my chapter is soon to come to an end and the second chapter will be by somebody else. I cannot guarantee the result of other people, so I think that [it’s] the sequence of cycle that I've been talking before that eventually will become the kind of, let's call it, rule of the system.
Well, I don't think that I could have changed, even with a different kind of faces in my person, but I think that the basic elements, once they have been moulded, remains the same and I have been trying to maintain a certain kind of continuity or bit of continuity and activity in that continuity. I still consider the first day still, almost half-sick or dead, so it is an artificial feeling that I have to move to prove to myself that I am still alive, you follow.
So in the balance between what you might call being civilised, which I suppose you mean being very considerate of other people, and of the needs of society around you as opposed to acting as a ruthless individual, in that balance of ruthlessness and civil behaviour, how do you work that out for yourself?
Well, there are elements of contradictions, in all these aspect of the same life. There are certain type of period of constructive stability for which you are civilised ...
This is a constant contradiction for which you are yourself different, different aspects, you discover yourself you are ruthless; in different areas, certain different periods, you are extremely civilised. That is the good about mankind and person, I think, that I am both one and the other.
But when you went off with the civilised British to their concentration camp, I suppose you were rather grateful that they were a little civilised? It would have been perhaps different in the concentration camp if they hadn't been so civilised? What did you find from that period in the concentration camp that you learned from that time, what did that period give you in your life?
Well you don't learn enough of your enemy when you are in a concentration camp, you are still under the kind of total atmosphere of compression, of uncompleted battle, if I might say so. You don't know about these people because they are still part of mankind outside the barbed wire. If they come they count you, just as animals, because in reality every day you had to be counted if you are in or out. But gradually that feeling of civility grew up as part of the treatment, the general treatment, at least in India, they were good masters. As a matter of fact they did their best to improve, so far as was possible, because toward the end of the period, eventually even themselves had a very difficult period. I'm talking about the disturbances in India around '43, '44, '45, and certainly I learned through the press, particularly on radio and reading, and direct contact with them, that gradually I got to know them before I could make any judgement.
Well, concentration camp is a melting pot of humanity and you see these people that are really unrest, you could study your ... your friend or your enemy much closer than you could study anywhere else. I think that these are naked in a concentration camp, you see really the mentality of people there, to me it was a fantastic experience that I valued very much.
Well first, I would say the selfishness, I mean the question of surviving of the fittest, even in this period was just so the selfishness is typical of mankind — that normally in the kind of community we are in is very well camouflaged. You could study also the character, the ability and seriousness of people that you can't study otherwise, and I didn't have many friends there but certainly I think, I mentioned to you, that I had this Pucelli [sp?], this very much involved in the kind of philosophy. He was not a personnel on the military side but certainly a very strong type of personality that had great influence in that period for me and it was with him that I tried to escape from concentration camp. If you remember, that was an experience that I did together because I was very close to him and we built a great kind of friendship together. He was the one that we could open completely his own, our own, type of experiences and trust and tell each other; that was quite a good chapter of my presence in India.
Well first, I would say the selfishness, I mean the question of surviving of the fittest, even in this period was just so the selfishness is typical of mankind — that normally in the kind of community we are in is very well camouflaged. You could study also the character, the ability and seriousness of people that you can't study otherwise, and I didn't have many friends there but certainly I think, I mentioned to you, that I had this Pucelli [sp?], this very much involved in the kind of philosophy. He was not a personnel on the military side but certainly a very strong type of personality that had great influence in that period for me and it was with him that I tried to escape from concentration camp. If you remember, that was an experience that I did together because I was very close to him and we built a great kind of friendship together. He was the one that we could open completely his own, our own, type of experiences and trust and tell each other; that was quite a good chapter of my presence in India.
Well certainly, the limitation is there, no doubt about that, but that fact it was a period of rest, if I might say, also of relative freedom, at least within that kind of perimeter, where I could more or less utilise at my will, the time that was available. So that period was a quite important formative chapter of my existence. I think that was an important period that I value just as any other period of my life.
Well certainly, I was not a leader, because there were internal movement built up in the system — political movement, a religious movement, social movement and activity. I was mainly in the area of studies, particularly in engineering. There was a built up university and I could certainly learn and also lecture in certain area. But I was also part of my normal instinctive display of my craftsman ability —part painting, part juggling with tools, building models and play, play social, of tennis, or chess for instance. I learned to become a good card player that normally I don't waste time in this kind of activity. As I said, I could utilise entirely my 24 hours every day. I felt I was a very busy body even in the kind of dormant kind of life that you could imagine in a concentration camp.
You were saying though that it was a kind of microcosm of society. Did that, was that, reflective in the relative wealth of the different people in the camp? In other words did you find a way to put yourself among the wealthy in the camp?
Well certainly, to me that was an exercise of becoming a little businessman, because the kind of activity gradually I was involved, I finished to become a wealthy man, relatively, in relatively to the system. It was a certain experience in building a little kind of business, no doubt about that.
Well business, let me say, watchmaking for instance was one of those, making models for different kinds of university outside the concentration camp, making cages for rabbits or poultry or making, say, artificial liqueurs, grappa, or whatever, eh, I can't stop to think how many. For instance, making machine to make spaghetti ... and all sorts of activities that was coming in my mind. I could fill entirely 24 hours in doing with tools that you could build, making skis for instance or repairing shoes or whatever, is always a tremendous amount of — almost a microcosm of world that you could find. Acting also in certain plays and conduct in the concentration camp in itself is a great chapter where mankind could reorganise themselves in a different kind of world that is worthwhile visiting. It is quite surprising, I mean, aspects of interesting life you could make in a concentration camp.
Well certainly, first of all money, money was in real rupees, you could get, therefore through that kind of money you could buy new tools, new equipment, oil colour, paints, brushes or whatever, you could even buy whatever was possible — for instance you could buy all sorts ... of course you can't, cannot send anything overseas or vice versa, you can't receive very much, but still it was quite an interesting creation of little wealth that to me was just adequate for the system.
So the order, that I think characterise the person, a personality, would just become evident in a group of people and I still believe that if you have a good character, in a sort of group of people, that character will eventually prevail in a certain way, and I think that, to me, that was a quite a good experience to prove that I could become a little active element of the group, what I was doing. So that was a good experience that eventually proved to me subsequently that I had to utilise my ingenuity to make a start in any direction — this happened eventually subsequently in a few years.
Now after the war was over, most soldiers found going back to civilian life quite a difficult adjustment; that was even true for those who were coming back on the winning side. What was it like to go back to Italy, your side having lost the war? What was it like, going back, and having to settle back down into civilian life? Were you greeted as a hero, or were you made to feel bad? What was it like in Italy when you returned home?
Well certainly, it has been to my memory, pretty sad to go back and found that you are practically unknown, there's no fanfare arriving to your little town, no-one will greet you, or thank you for what you have done. In '46, I came back in '46 when everything was resettled and the few jobs that were available had already been taken by somebody else, therefore there was very little left to you, you had to start from scratch all over again. So that was certainly very sad kind of a picture you have in front of you when you arrive and that was one of the reasons that I had to get determined to change again a page in my diary. I had to start all over again something else, that was just the type of feeling that I had on my return to Italy in '46.
No, I didn't feel bitter, I felt that it was just almost ominous that that kind of thing would happen to me or anybody else in the same circumstances. Italy was in a period of reconstruction, no doubt about that, but I had to start again, to complete my studies. I was lucky to go to Torino, a delightful town in north Italy where eventually many things were part of my subsequent life, including meeting eventually and marrying my wife. And I was very fond of Torino therefore at the completion of the studies, engineering, and the short period I did in the military service because — remember I was still part of the permanent career of Italian officers, so automatically that gave me a certain feeling of stability, not very healthy stability, but it was the beginning of a new chapter and at that point I had to decide what to do next. It was very essential for me to complete my studies just to prepare myself to what could be a further jump somewhere else.
Well, the studies that I had already done, most of the studies in the military academy before and eventually studying in concentration camp, I had to do an extra probably 25 examinations and I had to do it in a matter of possibly 18 months, so I had already wages. I still had wages — remember I had utilise the scrap of time that I had — so money was not a problem. To me what was important was the time issue. I was getting already 35, 36, years of age. I was robbed of my youth in one [way] or the other, so I had to start over again and the time ... you didn't have much time available. [At] 36 you are already too old, I had to make up my mind what to do next.
You can't really say what would be the next chapter, it is very difficult. I mean, the question of making plans for the future never happened to me, because you do properly what you are doing now as I have been saying before, so I had to complete my studies and I change and do some other job where I could possibly open a new type of opening. To me it was all just a new chapter, what was the secrets of the chapter, what was the conclusion, I never knew. I never know, even now, I never know. So it was important I was doing something else.
No, I don't think I really knew that I was going too far, or a new great chapter. In reality I could see that every little episode is only the sequence of the previous one. You don't see a discontinuity immediate, the thing just happens. You could be surprised of the result of that particular period, but certainly you cannot plan to the point of, say, 'I want to do that and I finish to do that.’ I think that the question of planning that as much as we like, is not always possible.
Well, I had to make up my mind even at that point, because 36, already 36 — '51, yes, 36, that's right — I found that one of my greatest friends got married and he warned me that getting married is the worst could happen [but] is just normal statistical behaviour of mankind and 78 percent of males get married, that means it cannot be too bad altogether, and so I decided. Since that time I was working already in Milano, of course I knew people, but particularly in Torino, I met this old lady, very charming, that eventually I discovered was the mother of these three girls, that I went to a sort of secret meeting. They didn't know that I was there, but that was coordinated by the mother. And of the three sisters I felt that Amina was the great, good, choice for me. I flirted with my wife for about three or four months and eventually she made up her mind and when she decided, she advised me as a matter of fact, when I going to go overseas that between the different choices, South America at the time that was in the balance or Australia, was much better Australia. So I choose Australia because she had made this thesis at university on Mark Twain, therefore and was much better therefore to go to Australia. So the choice of Australia or South America was just influenced very much by at that time my girlfriend.
Well she was a very aristocratic kind of woman. At that time she must have been around 50 or 60, I think around 50s ...
Well certainly, from my father-in-law point of view, she was part of the aristocracy because the name is part of a great family involved in the industry of wool but she, the mother, she was certainly a part of another generation. She come I think from Venice or Venezia, because typical different kind of a character, and I think that some sort of relationship between the two families but they gravitated eventually toward Torino.
I suppose that I am interested because you were someone from a poor family, or relatively poor family from the south and yet she thought that you would be a suitable person for one of her daughters to marry.
Well, what certainly influenced her very much, my mother-in-law, was the fact that I was an engineer and they had this activity of the engineering industry, therefore I was a potential supporter for the family, eventually marrying the daughter, to enter that kind of industry. So the fact that I was an engineer, I was certainly well thought about as such. I think that she fell in love with me before the daughter, no doubt about that.
I beg your pardon?
Well certainly, that to me it was a great romance with Amina because I fell deeply in love with her because I felt here's a girl, attractive, had intelligence, particularly because she was reluctant in the beginning, that probably created a kind of instinctive romance, and I was working in Milano and she was in Torino and that was probably the most very important romance in my life, because eventually, whatever I had [earlier] was only very superficial and transitory in all aspects. I think that what was to me a very important romance, the only romance that I had in my life.
Well, Amina is a tremendous element of stability in my life. Firstly because we got a completely different education, different standard of life, the kind of civility that I didn't have and still now don't have, the kind of affection, natural affection, that was probably missing in my system, in my life, so really has filled my life immensely, even if I have not been naturally grateful to her, as I should have been, or demonstrated to her. Certainly the education to the children, while on one side I have been responsible for a certain kind of roughness, and guidance and caution or discipline, she has always been on the other side of the fence and she has been a great complementary element to me, that's Amina.
Oh yes, constant. Constant conflict, no doubt about that, and we are still on the opposite side of the fence and in reality there are different kind of tastes, I must admit, even now. Sometimes it is surprising that, after 40 years, we still have these big differences of views on many subjects and sometimes I am probably, say, thanks for this fact that we are still together, or probably because we have been able to build together what we have at present.
Well, I think this is a pretty good complementary type of results, because I could recognise on them element of social behaviour that are typical of my wife and a certain kind of tough character that, I would say, probably come from me. I mean, the children of the three, they are different, in between themselves, each one, they really reflect very much, I could see, the input that came from the two parents.
Yes, no doubt. I am even able to recognise in, at least two of them, a kind of character, a tough character that I found in myself and there were certain clashing in many kinds of cases. I could see that there are a good element of stability for the type of school ... complex ... that I have made a contribution in Australia.
Very hard to make a prediction for the future, but there are pretty good parameters that I could see keeping, they could do, at least some of those could do better than I could do at present. Their knowledge, much rounder in area than I am particularly (a very beginner) — talk about financial type of economics, type of engineering. Their knowledge is more up to date, probably I've made a contribution, a sort of primitivism that was typical with improvisation, typical of me. I could see their preparation is certain rounder than mine, so I have great confidence for their continuity in the system, no doubt about that, so ...
This very simple, as you say direct but very tough-minded, approach that you have had to business over the years, can we find some evidence of the origins of that in the life and landscape and world of southern Italy into which you were born?
To pinpoint element that I could see, south Italy — the land that gave me birth — and Cassano delle Murge in the south part ...
Yes, certainly the element of toughness in my character could have been identifiable from the land I was born and [how] I seem today. South Italy on the tip, east part of south Italy, where very harsh country called [Cassano] delle Murge, where really outcrops of rocks really are more prevalent than the soil and my knowledge and experience also as a kid was that the farmer had to steal practically the soil from the stone. That this is really south Italy called delle Murge and I could see my relatives, when I was a kid, to go early in the morning and work toiling during the day, come late in the evening — that kind of life that is certainly a touching experience in my early childhood. That was Puglia. But on the other hand, Puglia itself must have had tremendous civilisation as a link between Greece and Rome. Puglia was part of what was the Magna Graecia, one of the colonies of Greeks at the time, and subsequently when Rome took over and eventually conquered Greece and adventured further, there was a good passage between Brindisi, the little town south further, and Taranto, where Romans must have gone in their voyage of conquest south and remnants of civilisation that were left there and subsequently, eventually the Moors and the Saracens and why not, the Arabs, and the other type of conquests, the Spaniards, the Zwebi [sp?], talk about the Germans ...
Certainly the land had a complex of great civilisation and, in a way, I am pretty sure they must have left something on me, as a mixture of all these people put together, no doubt about, and how you can discover in yourself any of these elements is very difficult, but I feel that I belong to that land.
Well, there is an interesting paradox in you, isn't there, because you had this harsh upbringing, a childhood that was affectionless in many ways and the tough side has been there in your career, but then there is this other side of you that has been a great nurturer of the arts?
Well, let that be some sort of element that is as surprising to me. Is that part of instinct or part of ... [coughing] ...
... that is my type of weakness, the arts now.
Let's see what happens.
So there's this paradox about your personality. It's very easy to trace the tough pert man from his rather affectionless gritty sort of childhood, through his military training and his life as an engineer, but there is another side to you which surprises people, which is the one who has been the great nurturer of art and artists in this country. How do you explain that and where does it come from, and what satisfaction do you get out of your involvement in the arts?
Just as it is a contradiction in terms — art and discipline, toughness and military inclination and creativity — all these things are just on the opposite side of the fence, and I would not know where really I got that kind of inclination. If I think of my father, he would try to entertain us with some sort of distracting element. When I was a little kid, I was sent to Gioia del Colle, he had the property, the house that he built himself, and who was going to do the painting to the windows? He had to send his son, probably I was 10 or 12 at the time. I had to mix the paint, I had to buy the linseed oil, put the compound for drying and put the lead oxide to mix the white, put a bit of black to make the necessary grey and certainly I was going to paint the windows. Still I remember, I was just 12 or even younger when I was doing this for my father. Did I develop this inclination for painting then? I don't think so.
Certainly I started getting landscape or doing landscape or all sorts of flourish type of stuff as part of the house decoration, if that is the case, little artefacts that were part of the normal, let's call toys, type of ingredient of any house, that I was painting very young. But you cannot develop an artist only starting that way and even now, after many years, I like to paint, not the level of artistry, but becomes part of an enjoyment more than anything else — even that period of [age] 16 to 18, I have been doing landscape painting, portraits. In the concentration camp I had a very good chance of meeting artists of authority and trying to monkey what they were doing, camouflage or copying or whatever, and even now some of the painting they still have, not my collection, my leftover of years of wandering around, I could discover good talent, I could see some good talent, eventually in that world of art around myself even now. So ...
Well, in looking background, if I had a formal education in the art that I'm sure that I could become a good artist. I have a good hand in drawing, a good feeling of colour and just a few weeks ago I was indulging in an entry to the Archibald and I did a pretty good sky, plus a little bit of sculpture. So the basic of any art I believe is still the drawing, if you could draw, and great sculpture or painters or whatever these people, first of all, they should learn to draw.
But you haven't become an artist, or not a professional one, you've become a patron of the arts, so what made you decide in this new land of Australia to get yourself so involved in the art life of the country.
Well initially it could be just a gimmick, or whatever, you never know when you start playing and eventually do things seriously. Certainly the first arriving in Australia, I didn't have any chance even to know, even to dedicate time, but it was around the '60s when already Transfield was in a good industrial position of respect, that the idea of an art prize to, mainly, publicise the company, so that the Transfield Art Prize became a big thing in the country, for more than 12 years. We eventually became a polarising element for many artists in the country was mainly for and around Australia, and I, together, a lot of artists that became friends, critics, and through that kind of initial exercise it was a fantastic array of contacts and, myself, I became more involved in the arts, not as an artist myself, but mainly studying and exploring the inner world of the art and that was to me a great time, great experience.
You did more than offer the Transfield Prize, though, you also offered facilities for sculptors to work in your foundry and you had a lot of personal contact with them. Did you enjoy the company of the artists?
The fact that behind me there is a company of that size, it was very easy to give hospitality, to give facilities available. We had a foundry for a period, but artists going to any of our workshops utilised our facilities, it was always joy to see these people really playing with real things. Most artists, they don't see even the size of what they could build if they give them a chance, and great sculptures were made in some of our workshops, and even now you can see around the cities or landscaping here and there. The fact of having the chance of helping artists and understanding the mentality and try to respect their creativity, was in itself a joy. To me it has been really great to discover this people and to make a lot of friends as a consequence.
It is almost natural for people to think that an Italian ... of course Italy with a great ... thousand years of civilisation and artistic achievement was obvious to identify me with a sort of Medici. Therefore the patronage became also and in time I myself started getting [a] bit of fun out of it, and this kind of patronage that [is] also a glorious experience to give a chance to artists, to give them the facilities, money or type of facilities, was always a reciprocal symbiosis with an artist and Transfield and myself, and even now whenever I have a chance to give a practical grant for the experience that artists try constantly themselves to develop.
I won't say that Transfield did need the art, in a way ...
It's been a very good thing for Transfield and I have been insisting many times that art has been a good business, so instinctively it has been a good business not only for our staff, for our offices, for our own surroundings, but also for the company. I mean, we have been identified as great benefactors in the art and in a way I've been playing quite nicely my role with a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction.
Well certainly, the biennale would be the second step, almost a consequence of the Transfield Art Prize and it would have been a great pity when there were so many art prizes in the country that we would have discontinued the art prizes, as it was suggested at the time. But the link between Italy and Australia, and Venice and Sydney, you see the concept of transferring the Biennale of Venice to a Biennale of Sydney was too great a captivating idea and initially was a very shy ... the suggestion of making it the Biennale of Sydney. The first biennale was almost an anti-climax, no-one believed that it could be done, everybody says 'difficult, can't be done', but sometimes the result of the thing can be done, could be much better than suspected. And the first biennale was at the Exhibition Hall at the [Sydney] Opera House, Mr [Gough] Whitlam was there, then he was also very much in love himself with the art because he was the Minister for the Art Department and the Prime Minister. Therefore that was another first for him. It was another first for us and for me.
So do you think that the climate of the times with the whole new interest in Australian culture happening was something you were able to mesh with and that it was the right time for you to be involved in all this?
Well, Australia at that time — talk about early in the ‘60s — was a sort of cultural desert and if you compare with what happens today, it is just a miracle what has been done for the development of conscientious, conscientious of art in the country, and in a way not only was I able to ride this type of wave but I think that I made also a contribution to this kind of development in a country. The concept of insularity in Australia even on the arts was pretty obvious and the idea of having an international type of context of the type of biennale, that now is sort of accomplished and now looks sort of almost obvious — at that time to consider that artists from overseas will come here and show their wares and vice versa, the Australian artists would be able to show what they could do overseas, that had been a fantastic experience and to me unbelievable type of association with a movement that now has put Australia on the map so far as the art is concerned.
Well, the fact that I am sincerely in love with the art and the artist because I am always so much more or less activated by the creativity of artists. While I'm in love with science and engineering, I don't put them on the same level — the ability of scientist with the ability of an artist — and I am a great admirer and am constantly captivated by this kind of Jungian exploits and art still remains for me one of the greatest phenomenon that is making mankind alive. And Australia had been insulated by this distance, is really a shortening these distances, and now it has become part of the great family of nations, mainly because through the cultural exchanges, we are reducing this kind of tyranny of distance that was a character of Australia in the early ‘50s.
So, do you think that cultural diplomacy is as important as, say, business opening up in other countries? Do you think that it is very important for Australia to have a strong, strong cultural policy and a strong cultural movement?
Well, Australia needs to improve the contacts with the rest of the world and business, commerce, economy are other aspects of the nations, but I think it is more pronounced the presence of the art and the artists, and I am sure that Australia is also making a good business out of it. I understand that Australia, in the balance of payment, is taking to account also the sale of music, the sale of pop, the sale of theatrical performance, ballet and the other ones, quite apart from the masterpiece of visual art that are coming out of the country, so Australia now is becoming probably more prominent in the world for the artistic ability that ... not for the industrial or commercial capacity.
Now you're leaving behind in Australia an extraordinary legacy of engineering achievements spread right across the country, you've left your mark, but you've also been able to sponsor and support a tremendous amount of artwork. Of these two legacies you'll leave behind, which makes you the most proud?
Well of the two, quite frankly, while I'm pretty proud of the contribution, industrial contribution in the engineering field, the many aspects all over the area and outside Australia, particularly in the last few years, I think we have become probably more relevant, my presence in the arts, strangely enough, coming from an engineering background. I'm sure that people will probably remind me more for what I have been here and their propulsive element in the art, particularly visual art, that is not engineering, and I'm pretty sure that even my children will like to see me more in the type of patron of the arts that not as a sort of builder or engineering type of pioneer.
I beg your pardon?
I don't think so. I don't think my father would have spent much time in the art arena, at least my perspective of him was very practical man, a down-to-earth type of operator that would not waste his time too much in the art world.
Well, partly because through my complex succession of events in my life, my mental formation has gradually changed and matured in so many directions that eventually, if I could make a type of conclusion, I would say that it is not technicality, not engineering, not science, is the basic element that will shape mankind. I think it is essential that the culture, the social structure, the relationship between humans, is much more important.
Well, first of all, there were no Australians there, mind you there were British, — not even British, they were basically Indians. So to me the story of the escape was part of my heroic chapter, was part I had to escape because I felt that it was part of my duty, so the escape was a natural try, a failed escape and the fact that other people behind me, they tried, they were shot, automatically closed the chapter, so no more escapes, better do something else, whatever. So you see it is part of the sequence of events in a life of everybody, that was a trial, that part of me needed to escape, the necessity of proving to myself that at least I tried to.
Well, dreams are always possible, and in reality I had a map, this map of India with the Ganges rolling down towards Calcutta, that way Burma, and so the idea of going, I mean the great thing about dreamers, they don't know what they are talking about, they don't know the details and without this kind of dreamers nothing will happen.
But, very simple, because we didn't go more than probably two or three kilometres. There was a big type of revolution in the camp and the guards did the alarm, they sent the Gurkha troops came around and around us, and that was the end of it, but I don't think the thing could really, in perspective, could have any chance of success because the continent of India and the difficulty of mixing with the Indians was such type of impracticality, that I think that it just proves that how many people at any time, they are just simple fools.
I was a fool.
No, on the contrary, they thought I was a hero, just for trying, you see that was [what] it amounts to. A lot of history is made on the history of fools.
Well, I mean first of all, I have self-respect, I tried, that's it, but also because that gives some sort of credibility to what we're doing later on. I mean, it was transient, for after a few months we were moved from that camp somewhere else. But it was also a question of pride, of trying, but even before I went there, I remember on the actual voyage from Ismailia to Bombay, I tried to put the ship on fire. I did my best to sink the ship. I didn't succeed but all this type of thing is part of this chapter of the heroic kind of period in which you are living and anything is justifiable. It didn't succeed and I think that even the alarm, at that time, I mean the British could take five people or 10 people and shot them straight away in the war, as the German would have done but, again, because I think the British were too civilised, didn't take that step.
Now, just to sum up, what do you think was the legacy for your later life of your time in that camp. What were the particular things that you were able to learn and things that you had time for there, and how did you emerge as a character out of that camp?
Well I don't want to build too much on that period, it certainly was an important segment of my life, a segment of maturity of thinking, mainly self-appraisal. Examining the mood and the character of other people was certainly important period, five years, four years, important for my stability, mental and otherwise, to complete my studies, a stepping ground for what happened later on. Without the concentration camp and the war, I don't think I could have done what I did further, so that was an important episode of my life, but I don't want to give much importance to that, there were other battles that I had to try to win, further on.
One of the things that we were going to talk about that would be interesting to explore a little bit more, is your view for the future ... your role of multiculturalism as a concept, not just in Australia, but perhaps looking more broadly at the world and the fact that we have many different cultures having to live in fairly confined quarters with each other now in a rather crowded world. What is your view of multiculturalism and what kind of multiculturalism can actually work?
Well I came to Australia in a way not as a immigrant — even now I don't consider myself an immigrant in Australia even if I am here, technically an Australian — but the mentality and tradition an Italian. Certainly in Australia is an interesting experiment. I think it is a celebration of diversity, very important and controlled process, thanks to the civility of the British or the Australian in this case to be able to maintain a sort of chemical balance that I hope will continue to be controlled. Australians are very lucky in a way, fortunate to have this kind of diversity, that more than a multicultural, is a sort of addition of different capacity of people to stimulate, they called the Indigenous here, and I think it is working, it is working. If the Australian people to maintain that kind of equilibrium we will be a very happy society.
There is sometimes a debate goes on between the American form of ethnic mix, where what is asked of people is that they make it terrifically clear that their becoming part of the country means their putting being American before being Italian or whatever else, and what's been seen as the Australian and Canadian idea which is a group of people of very different backgrounds cohabiting happily together in the same country. Do you think that it's important for Australia that it maintain a sense the people have of belonging to very diverse cultures or do you think that question of primary allegiance to Australia as a first thing might be something that could be promoted? What's your view of the brand of multiculturalism that could work in Australia?
Well, I can't conceive that no-one will tolerate that these newcomers, they have allegiance to somebody else or something else. I think that's paramount, sooner or later these people must make up their mind where to belong to. With all traditions and their loyalties on their own family or whatever, sooner or later, they must make up their mind, and Australians are sometime too much tolerant. I don't like a certain kind of political involvement or movement that I could see here and there, particularly in this critical period of European type of appeal, in the long range, I think that Australians should have no alternative, incidentally. They must tolerate this diversity, and with time, that kind of diversity will eventually blend and merge in a total local kind of expression, a little bit of what happens in the States, where immigrants of say, last century, they are now totally Americans, so that process will take time, you can't hurry consensus of origins and Australia, in a way, they are doing pretty good job.
Of course, yes.
Well, first of all, you must make up your mind where to belong to. I mean, when you spend more than half of your life in a new country, in my case, it is almost 40 years, you have no alternative, no ambiguity, so certainly I belong to Australia, even if I have roots, I have roots somewhere else, even if I go occasionally, as I do, in Italy and I can recognise a context and I recognise a sign of my origin, still I feel that eventually home is here, no doubt about that. And I suppose that for me, immigrants, that should be the way to behave. I mean sentimental and ethnic origins cannot play it long-range, we unfortunately ... we cannot leave it too soon, sooner or later we must make up our mind and even if I feel intensely this traditionally Italian, still I can't help that time in Australia.
Well, my children got another kind of ambiguity themselves in a way. One is married to a Hungarian, the other two are married to Italians, so they have their own problems to settle, but I could see that probably that process that is much more accelerated in my case. Still it takes a bit more time, because of the fact of having two of them, an Italian wife, automatically delayed that process of, let's call assimilation, but certainly the third generation I could see already they feel entirely Australian. That process I could see is natural, obvious.
And in relation to the world at large, do you think that one of the significant problems that the world is going to have to overcome is the fact that ethnicity is becoming a bit of a problem in the world because we are all getting so crowded, we're all getting so closely together and our political and geographical borders don't always match our ethnic, our specific ethnic groups? I mean, this is happening in Europe now, what's your feeling, looking at Europe, do you think we're going to see a lot of regionalism emerge?
Partly the episode that I think are exceptionally ugly in Europe today ... what is being really recognised is that science and technology is making so easy communication, is so easy making transport for which what was initially, type of friction of distance, doesn't exist anymore. Now the chance of knowing each other, I think that the communication particularly, meeting of different people and art particularly more than anything else, is one of the factors, will eventually blend these kind of people. I think that in the future, there will be more and more an emphasis on communication, economic transfer, financial institution and type of dealing with different kind of group, this will probably gradually blend differences and will avoid the kind of extremism of the militarism and all type of ‘isms’, religious or otherwise. I am very much confident that soon more than later there will be a much better understanding between people, so the chance of military confrontation will become less frequent than that has been in the past, due to this technological development of communication, transportation, of people and goods, so I am from that point of view optimistic that relationship in the group of people will eventually [be] easier, become more friendly.
Well, the biennale has opened the gate [coughs] to these kind of exchanges, exchange of art, of criticism ... of tourism, of visitors. These exchanges are just as valuable than all other type of dealing, because it is done by young people.
Well this exchange of, really, contacts is getting friendship, particularly, and I could see artists coming from Europe, or from America, or from Asia, from Japan particularly, I could see that the more and more emphasis that all these communities are giving wisely to this exchange and of biennale is a great movement of art in Australia, opening the gate to what was overdue. I mean, the biennale has been around more than 20 years old, I wish we had started it 10 or 20 years earlier but certainly it is a great collective experiment that is giving more and more exposure to Australia, that means more than anything else to the rest of the world.
To me it is always exhilarating to go in the Biennale Pavilion or could be in the gallery, meeting artists, and seeing the kind of adventurism, in any of these creative elements of artistry. It is an adventure of incredible pleasure, experimenting and creativity that is built into the biennale, where the communication cannot be instantaneous. Sometimes this needs some sort of, almost, time reaction and any chapter of the biennale, and if I could [talk about] the history of the biennale for the last 20 years, we have a fantastic volume of episode that cannot be told in five minutes. It is an absolutely feast of event for which every chapter has got light ... has got light, friendship, contacts, really life in itself.
Now, talking of feasts, when you first came to Australia, you must have been struck by how uninteresting the food was. Now you are someone who is interested in good food, could you tell us a little bit about the history of change in that particular artform, if you want to call it that?
It's a part of the culture of mankind, and Australia in reality is typical for the isolation. When I came here, the traditional steak with eggs and plonk and type of very dense thick tea, undrinkable, that was part of my experience in the early ‘50s. What you have now today is absolutely, absolutely, a new life that you could experiment with a dozen and dozens of varieties of food of any nationality. Australia is very fortunate of having these kind of contacts. I mean Australia has changed tremendously and in a way, when we talk about the culture of the company, Transfield, I think that our success is very due to the blend of the multiculturalism in our company, to the different races, and the question of having the different ability of fitting our people in different ways wherever we are with different kinds of cuisine, particularly in Italian incidentally, and also the additional, the cultural way, of art tradition, so Transfield ... has been to me also part of the world that in a way I have had to create, I created myself, but is a fantastic world in itself, that is part of the Australian life.
Well, if I would have a case to mention, about my cook, my main cook, Genaro [sp?], is an artist himself and I think that we have in Sydney, particularly, but I would say in hundreds of sites where we're working, the basic to maintain a good standard of cooking and, in a way, traditional Italian cuisine, has also been part of our type of penetration in the country if I might say so, ambassadorial type of penetration. If you could feed people properly, you automatically get happy people, happy working people, and the surrounding become much more cheerful.
Well, still I believe, there are plenty of opportunities, I don't think that yesterday was much better than today. The opportunities exist today, but the people must be prepared to start, I mean, to give a chance to anything. To do it properly, even from very modest beginning. Altogether I have seen many companies starting, not only Transfield, but also a lot of segment came out from Transfield, dozens and dozens of small company, disgruntled foreman, for instance, disgruntled executive that didn't like, eventually started by himself, incredible. I could have mentioned dozens of little companies that were built as part of the lateral development of the main company, utilising small opportunities. I would say to the youngsters, any young, first of all they must have type of confidence in himself and then he could start with and then could start any little business, could be a little restaurant, could be a little workshop, could be even to work with somebody else to start learning, why not? Nothing wrong about working with somebody else, another company. And that's part of the experimentation, to learn and then start in due course. I think that people should give a chance to themselves first, then do something else. If somebody loses that confidence, I think that's the end of it. I would encourage anybody to start anywhere now, instead of waiting for tomorrow.
If you had a young Franco Belgiorno-Nettis working for you, the way you worked for the company that first brought you to Australia, and this young person did you what you did and branched out and became your main competitor, what you would say to him, how would you feel about him or her?
Well, you could certainly have a bit of resentment in the beginning and myself ... [interruption] ... bloody thing [phone], that's yours ...
If you had a young Franco Belgiorno-Nettis working for you, who did to you, what you did to the firm that you were working with when you first came to Australia, and branched out and set up on his own, how would you feel about him?
Well, obviously I would certainly resent it but, a few days ago, the very foreman that started with me [at] Transfield, in Port Kembla, died. He was a great fellow, he created a lot of hatred at the time, 1973, when he left. Still I sent him a telegram the other day, of complimenting him for the great help he gave to Transfield and the constructive work he did further for Australia. That means eventually, sooner or later, you must realise that each people doing something to answer their own ego, or their own cradle and for the betterment of themselves, you can't stop them, it could be certainly a type of personal grudge, but you can't help — it's part of life.
As part of the wave of Europeans who came here and had such a profound effect on Australia, what do you feel about the new wave of Asian migrants that are coming to Australia now? Do you feel that this is a very important part of the Australian mix and what do you think it is going to mean for Australia in placing itself in this part of the world?
If you see the opinion of Australians in the early ‘70s, it would be unconceivable for Australia to be so measured by the Asian immigration. Now, Asians becomes accepted and is unavoidable and Australia has no alternative. They cannot get any more immigrants from Europe, they cannot raise their natality and they have to face the music of accepting Asians as immigrant. And in reality it will be the necessary destiny of this islands in the Pacific, this white tribe in the Pacific, to be gradually blended with Asia and I would imagine that the next 200 years, Australia will be almost Aboriginal compared with the Asians that will be flooding the country. I could see that happening and there is nothing that would stop. Australian are certainly in the process now of deciding the kind of blend of immigrants; in the future I'm not sure if they will be able to do so. The strength ... the strength of population will be the only factor deciding the destiny of this country.
Well, certainly it could not be very happy as part of the future, so far as your race is concerned, but in reality we cannot know, I think, that anybody will control the event of mankind. It looks to me that these things are outside the capacity of the will of each single group. I am convinced that the flow of strength in the world will depend essentially from the virility, from the ability of one race to overcome the other. And I could see that the natality of this part of Asia, by far much greater than the white race, and I'm not sure if the next couple of hundred years, we might have a reverse of what happening the last thousand or so years ago. That's something for which people could think about. I don't know if they could prevent it but this is the realities.
Well, at least it is part of the world, no doubt about that.
Now you've been in Australia for well on 40 years. What sort of Australia can you imagine emerging in the next 40 years? How would you describe it, will it be a republic, what will be the racial mix ... what will be, where will it stand in the wealth of the nations of the world?
Australia is trying desperately to justify their presence here and in reality they have to do miracles, they have to do jumping around to justify, not only to be here, but also to control this vast amount of land. I mean, it is almost ludicrous that 17 million of inhabitants, the population of Mexico City, could control a continent of this dimension. So it is up to the Australian to accept the reality, mix with these people, and the people that are much closer to us are the people that probably are most likely to be the one coming here and there will be no other alternative. I think that Australia will justify more with dignity, their presence here, in real English [than] unnecessary links with traditional empire that is at present.
Well, there again, we have no alternative. I mean, the amount of work available in the country here for me recently is declining. Australia is risking to be marginalised in Asia and in the country here we have no alternatives but to start getting contacts with the people around us — commerce, financial, economics — and we are certainly moving fast. That is how the company is doing, so, and I don't see nothing wrong about that, as a matter of fact, it would be for the better kind of communication in this part of the world that will accept the persons, or better, to be accepted, these persons with them, and more or less to justify our presence here ... [interruption and request from producer] ...
Franco, you've told us that you are not a religious man and you are this son of a railway man from southern Italy living in Australia, not particularly religious, but you managed to get the Pope to come and visit the workers. How did you do this, how did you bring it off?
Could be an accident, could be a miracle, I don't know what happens. In reality, the Pope probably wanted to talk to a multicultural community and there was no better multicultural community than Transfield. We might have, at the time, probably 60 different nationalities and we were extremely fortunate to have the Pope in our major workshop, talking to this crowd, an incredible feast, it was a great picnic day, a great event for us and for Australia, incidentally, that we had the Pope in our workshop.
Well, I think he enjoyed it, he made a remarkable speech, the fact is, he said it was a very touching, it was a very touching experience for everybody, family in particular, a lot of families of our people and surrounding Seven Hills, Blacktown. To me it was also a touching experience in the way he spoke. He talk about the nobility of work, speaking about the sanctity of staying together, stability of family and if I remember, he quoted the gospel, in some cases, and referred to the necessity of people working. It was a very good point for every one of us and one of the great points that he made, that if somebody doesn't work, he's not entitled to eat.
Exactly, as a matter of fact, that was an incredible experience for the thousand and thousands of people that were there that day, not withstanding all the security. The people enjoyed it immensely, his presence, and that will remain in the history of Transfield, and personally in my history a great moment.
... [laughing] ...
Well, for some sort of a reason, I am still, I am an atheist, or I am agnostic, I don't know exactly the difference between the two, and he didn't change my attitude but I have a lot of respect for him and for religious people. As a matter of fact, if I have to find an alternative to an agnostic and the religious as a friend, I will have no alternative to make a choice.
I don't know if this comes to a critical attitude on myself or the kind of experiences in the family. My father was not a religious man, my mother certainly struggled many time to take us in church, to my place in Cassano, in Gioia del Colle. The question of going to the church was just normal, to go to Mass. But it didn't leave much impression to us even if we were studying religion at the school and even at the military academy, but eventually the decision about religion ...